Nick Montgomery on his journey from rough Leeds streets to Hibs via Sheffield United and Australia - 'it's not all been a bed of roses'
As the mobile phone rings deep in the handbag sitting between us, rudely interrupting the interview, there is an internal groan. There is no ignoring the faux pas. It is now down to how Nick Montgomery responds.
As a player, the current Hibs manager was the captain who collected dressing room fines. A direct, no-nonsense guy who saw the merit in laying down rules and self-policing. As a manager, he has made it clear that he likes working with selfless players, who are hard-working, humble and respectful. Surely, he is not going to appreciate the fact that the phone had not been silenced.
He pauses mid sentence….“That’s a tenner,” he says, deadpan, before thankfully laughing and easing the momentary tension.
Because for all he remains keen on discipline, revealing that the Christmas night out fund has been bolstered significantly since his arrival thanks to certain players - “I’m naming no names” - and some non-negotiable rules - “as a manager you have to worry about everything, as a player you just need to turn up on time and that’s something I’m really strict on” - he is someone who believes in second chances.
“Sometimes it’s a third chance, although in the case of Jason [Cummings, the man he rescued from a poor reputation and dwindling options in Scotland and helped reinvent himself as a top striker A-League winner for Central Coast Mariners and a Socceroos World Cup player] it was probably his fifth chance at least but look how that turned out.
“As a manager you have to create an environment where people come in and feel comfortable. If you make mistakes it’s not the worst thing in the world.”
People just have to want to improve and that comes through coaching but, for Montgomery, it is also all about man-management, utilising psychology in the right way, and about finding a balance. A balance in the type of players he recruits and the type of people they are.
“I was what was known as low maintenance. I would just come in, train hard every day, and then play. The more low maintenance, high output players you can get, the better but you probably do need a few high maintenance ones because they tend to be the ones that win you a game. But you have to make sure that they are not just high maintenance but high output.”
As a kid, football was an all-consuming passion for Montgomery. “None of my family were ever involved in football but I loved it. I remember watching Match of the Day and I had a ball with me everywhere I went. I would kick it until all the leather came off and it became really light and then I would try to get a new one.
“It was just a real culture of kids playing in the street back then. You don't see that anymore. We would play until the street lights came on or someone smashed a window and a neighbour confiscated the ball and told us we weren’t getting it back until the following day.”
That was in Leeds, where his hometown hero was David Batty. “But I also loved watching the attacking players. The players who scored the goals. As a defensive midfielder it was always nice to win the ball back, give it to the attacking players, let them do what they do.”
Describing himself as a “hard working, honest and probably not the most technically gifted” footballer, the 42-year-old says he was a selfless team player.
That stemmed from the example set by his mum, who was a nurse, and his dad, who combined his day job as a driving instructor with night shifts as a security guard.
“It was a normal working class background. They worked long shifts for very little but they supported me and my brother. We didn’t have a lot but we had enough. I wanted to repay them by making it in the game because of the effort and expense they put into helping me follow my dream.”
Giving his all is another of his non-negotiables and it has been integral to a career that has survived some testing lows as well as plenty highs.
“Coming from quite a rough area in Leeds, where the biggest hobby was stealing cars, you learn how to run fast, cycle fast. But that is where I grew up and I wouldn't change it for anything.
“My brother is older than me and he did a little bit of boxing and he always supported me and protected me but, 100 per cent, it does make you streetwise.
“I used to play football on the streets with kids a lot older and bigger than me. You learn how to become street smart and use your body in different ways.”
Coming across as a principled, straight-talker, there is something relatable about Montgomery and while youngsters who come through the academies at Central Coast Mariners or at Hibs may not be dodging cars as they play in the streets, he understands some of the difficulties they face.
He was a member of Leeds Academy from the age of 10 but was floored by glandular fever and tonsillitis as he was about to leave school. With no guarantee of a scholarship, he asked the Elland Road club to release him, his mum wrote to other clubs seeking the chance for her boy to impress, and he did enough to earn a two-year opportunity from Sheffield United.
In the first year he dislocated and broke his ankle and the surgeon warned him he may never play again, having proved him wrong, there was a further setback the following season when he was rushed to hospital with bacterial meningitis and spent two weeks on a drip and receiving lumbar punctures. But, Montgomery is resilient and dogmatic. Those qualities have fuelled the highs and helped him bounce back from play-off disappointments and a dislocated shoulder that sidelined him just as a full Scotland cap looked possible [he qualifies through his dad].
“It’s not all been a bed of roses, there are a lot of down moments and injuries and doubts - people doubting you and you doubting yourself. But I always had that desire.
“One minute you are playing in the street, the next you are appearing at Old Trafford on Match of the Day and all that hard work and effort, ups and downs, is worth it.”
But it is always about the right balance. In his teams and in his life. As a kid he would spend four weeks every summer on his uncle’s farm near Arbroath and recognises the value of family and an outdoor lifestyle. Which is why when he was offered a contract in Australia he jumped at it.
He and wife Josie had just had their twins, Chloe and Leah, but born prematurely they struggled. “They are 12 now but they didn’t have the best start to life and were constantly sick and we knew the climate would be good for them. Australia is an amazing place to grow up. It was the best thing we could have done because they have had such an outdoor lifestyle and, touch wood, they were hardly ever ill while we were there. They have really flourished but they are ready to come back now, to Scotland.”
That is where the real balance comes in. Despite taking Aussie citizenship in 2017 and flourishing as a coach and then manager, topping it all off with that against all odds A-League title last season, Scotland and Hibs gives him work-life equilibrium.
Well, it will once his wife and three daughters join him in the capital in the next couple of weeks following a near three-month separation as they finished out school and packed up in Oz and he attempted to hit the ground running in the Premiership.
While his mum passed away five years ago, the move brings them all closer to his father, who was up at Hampden to watch his son lead the Leith side out in the Viaplay Cup semi final, and his wife’s parents.
And, although his kids will have to get used to a different climate, Montgomery is excited that the timing of their arrival will allow them to embrace a northern hemisphere Christmas.
“It has been the hardest thing being without the family. The most I’ve ever been away from them is 10 days but now we are talking over 10 weeks.
“Selfishly, being here alone has allowed myself and Sergio [Raimundo, Montgomery’s assistant, who joined with him from Central Coast Mariners] to go and watch a lot of the academy games and women’s games and really get to know everybody without having to sort where the kids are going to school or where we’re going to live, all that stuff. We have watched a lot of football. That is the one positive I take out of it.
“But it will be nice when they get here because you do need that balance in your life. You need to go home and leave work behind sometimes.”
In Australia, he tried surfing but it wasn’t for him and while there is an active golf school at Hibs, he doesn’t have the time it would take to indulge. Instead, his favourite way to relax if he ever manages to switch off is with his family.
“I’m a real family man. I love my kids and I love to just spend time with them as a family.
“One of the twins is obsessed with horses and there are plenty of horses here, and one of them enjoys skiing and is already looking at the ski slope so that’s going to be a weekly thing, and Eva, the four-year-old, she just loves life. There is also the Harry Potter stuff as well. No doubt they will be trekking round Edinburgh looking for things to do with that.”
Surrounded by girls at home and lads at work, while the latter can be challenging, he laughs, the women in his life offer respite and support.
“Whether we go for a walk or they want to go shopping, if it is watching tv or playing on the trampoline with Eva, it is just about trying to switch off from football. It is harder than you think but the wife just takes the phone off me at times!”
Along with that assertiveness is a softness, though. “They are the ones who are happy to see you whether you win, lose or draw and the girls tell me ‘well done’, or say ‘don’t worry about it, you will win next time’. It is the best advice you can ever get and it comes from kids.”
He could have used that wisdom over the past few weeks as the side were forced to settle for draws when wins looked more likely.
But a man who has spent his managerial career developing and rehabilitating players and using psychology and a mix of carrot and stick to convince them they are better than they believe, gives the notion of Hibsing it short shrift.
“When I came in, I heard all the comments but for me they are all irrelevant because the only people who can change that are me and the players who are here now. It is easy to listen to people who want you to fail but proving them wrong has to be the driving force.
“To work with players who have been cast aside by other clubs or had people doubt them for whatever reason, that’s a really powerful thing.
“Jason is an example of that. And, look at Jair Tavares here, when I came in he was training with u-18s but I saw a talented player who hadn’t lost belief in himself but was broken. He just needed someone to back him.”
A father figure, with a caring side, who brings the best out in players through empathy and honesty, Montgomery has faith in what Hibs are doing. While there have been just three wins in his 11 games in charge, there have been only two defeats. The number of draws have been a frustration but the pragmatic gaffer says it is about scratching beneath the surface.
“It is always about getting the boys to buy into your vision. I believe it was the first time in six months that we had come back from a 1-0 deficit when we did that against St Mirren, when we beat them in the cup, and it was the first time in four years that the club has come back from a 2-0 deficit which we did against Hearts in the derby. So, when you strip it all back there are a lot of positives.”
In football, as in life, it is just about finding the balance.
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