The rise and rise of the former Highland League side is one of the success stories of the SPFL pyramid play-off system, but delivering a second league title in three years at the Balmoral Stadium is also a sign of their coach’s successful second-wind in management, restoring a reputation dented at Dundee and Falkirk.
But how did one of the brightest, forward-thinking managers end up at the bottom division leading the SPFL new-boys up the league ladder rung-by-rung, five years after winning three successive promotions?
When he took over as a rookie manager, Alloa only had three signed players but Hartley constructed a bright, attacking side to immediately win League Two and stay the course through the League One play-offs the following year.
As an early adopter of now common-place fitness techniques his team’s warm-ups were as dynamic as their play – and it paid dividends – with trusted lieutenant Tam Ritchie following him to Dundee, Falkirk and Cove to specialise in conditioning.
Just as Alloa did nine years ago, Cove reached the play-off final last season and maintained pace to the end of this campaign, chased all the way by Airdrie to the second tier – a level Hartley knows, and has won, before.
Three in three
Having impressed with the part-time Wasps he moved to Dundee and led the Dark Blues to the Championship title that same season for his laudable third promotion in three years.
Yet a seven-game losing streak in the second half of his second year in the Premiership cost Hartley his Dens Park position, though the Dark Blues moved out of relegation play-off danger and stayed up again. Another low-point followed at floundering Falkirk.
Despite keeping the under-achieving Bairns in the Championship for his first season by signing talents like Alex Jakubiak, Sunderland Academy prospects Andrew Nelson and Tommy Robson plus Louis Longridge, placing faith in the club's new recruitment model that relied upon an English-based scouting policy the following summer did not develop a squad capable of surviving in the second tier. When season 2018-19 started poorly Hartley was dismissed within a month and Falkirk later relegated.
It was a damaging period for both, but it is the outlier for Hartley – the only club in 11 years where he has not achieved a promotion.
It appears a lesson learned. At Cove Hartley has assembled his current team with players who won't look out of place in Championship surroundings next term. Fraser Fyvie is a Scottish Cup winner with Hibs, there is strength at the back with Morgyn Neill, Mark Reynolds and Shay Logan’s experience. Up front, Mitch Megginson and Rory McAllister are synonymous with goals.
They can look forward to a first year in the Championship as a club on the rise, and a manager back on the upswing.
While still at Alloa he was linked with Cardiff City, and though one of his former clubs Hibs are currently looking, his name is far from the betting-markets’ 30 managerial suggestions. But if a similar trajectory continues for Cove and Hartley's recovering stock, will that remain the case for future vacancies?