Interview: Colin Cameron, Cowdenbeath manager and former Scotland international

YOU have to take Central Park, Cowdenbeath as you find it which today means howling wind, horizontal rain, a gaggle of glum kids, a boardroom where the most prominent trophy is the one for the Glenrothes Twin Town Olympiad, a blonde TV glamourpuss lugging her own tripod almost in deference to the modest surroundings, and a manager – Colin Cameron – telling a radio reporter that his team will have to “get right intae them”.

But what’s not to like? There are Mini Rolls and crisps on the table, ancient newspaper cartoons on the walls alongside photographic record of what must have been a notable match – “Germany v Cowdenbeath, May 1928, Munich” – and on the feet of the Blue Brazil’s top scorer Lewis Coult, dazzling gold trainers. The scamps were long-faced because the Scottish Cup itself had been late to arrive on its promotional tour, but here it is, and even your correspondent feels compelled to barge them out of the way for a close-up snap of the key corner where it says Hibs were victors once, a long, long time ago. The great cup under-achievers are the fourth-round visitors to this wonderfully wonky ground and the man from the BBC announces Sportscene are giving the tie the three-camera treatment, a sure sign of shock potential.

It says something about Hibs – who set the engravers to work in 1902 but haven’t done since, who’ve been dumped out by lower-league opposition in the last two seasons, who should have lost here at the same stage 19 years ago, according to one local worthy, but for a cast-iron penalty outrageously denied – that another abrupt exit wouldn’t be a total surprise. Maybe, says Cameron when we retreat from the hubbub to his office. He’s putting on his most diplomatic face. I check his ears, the ones like trophy handles earning him the school nickname Mickey that’s endured through a highly colourful 22-year career, but they’re not waggling cheekily at the prospect of encountering old foes this beleaguered. It’s not just Hibs’ current form which hints at an upset, however, it’s that of the Second Division leaders as well.

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A 4-0 derby win over East Fife on Monday including a goal from the player-boss was proof of that. “And when we found out Stenhousemuir had lost, and that Dumbarton had scored late to beat Arbroath which strengthened our position some more, the players could finally turn their thoughts to Hibs,” he says. “We’re used to winning football matches; they’re not. That said, they’re still an SPL club who need to salvage their season. How do we beat them? I’ll have a plan but I would say that we have to be unpredictable. I watched them in Pat Fenlon’s first game in charge [away to Motherwell, leading 1-0 until it was abandoned at half-time] and even though that might have been the best they’ve played recently I still saw things we could exploit.

“Family and friends are saying they fancy us on Saturday and it’s great they’ve got the belief.” Does he have any Hibby relatives? “Er ... naw! My wife Nicola claims to support them but she’s been doing that since we got together when I was playing at Hearts and she worked at Tynecastle and I’ve always regarded it as a wind-up. I believe we can beat them and now it’s over to the players who’ve got a wonderful opportunity, with the telly and all, that doesn’t come around too often in the Second Division. And I haven’t detected any nerves in them so far – only excitement.”

If they require inspiration, of course, then the Blue Brazil need look no further than their 39-year-old gaffer who is both a previous winner of Scottish, with Hearts, and also a never-to-be-forgotten giantkiller. In 1994 with hometown team Raith Rovers he supped warm lager from that other venerable silver pail, the League Cup, after scoring a penalty in the shootout triumph over Celtic.

An explosive midfielder in his heyday who knew the way to goal all right and was capped for Scotland 28 times, Cameron says: “If I was to think of a parallel with Saturday it might be the third round that year when we played Kilmarnock. They were a division above but the tie was at Stark’s Park, we were going well and we fancied it. I remember our manager Jimmy Nicholl telling us how a win against a Premier team would be great for our CVs, how we should go out and express ourselves, and that gave us the extra belief. I scored my first and only hat-trick and we won 3-2.

“The final? You think about it now and again, replay wee bits in your head, and between ‘now’ and ‘again’ a fan will aye be sure to ask about it. We were a First Division club and Celtic were Celtic. We shouldn’t have won but we did. I remember Gordon Dalziel and Ally Graham, normally chirpy-chirpy on the bus, being dead quiet. The young guys – Stevie Crawford, Jason Dair, Davie Sinclair and myself – weren’t nervous. I loved the build-up, absolutely loved it. I was playing in a national cup final at 22; you’ve got to enjoy that.

“Mind you, when my penalty went in, I was the most relieved I’ve ever been in my life. Gordon, who usually took our pens, was glad to have been substituted to avoid the shootout. On the walk to the spot I must have told myself a hundred times: ‘Dinnae change your mind. You know where to pit it. Pit it there and the goalie won’t save it.’ Then came the wonderful feeling that we’d actually gone and won.” Not bad for a wee guy – “Five seven ... and a half” – who was frequently told he was too small to be a footballer.

Maybe Cameron thought the euphoria of the victory parade – dancing in the streets of Raith and all that – couldn’t be topped, but his switch to Tynecastle brought Scottish success four years later. He searches for more parallels, this time between the two triumphs. “Shaun Dennis and Gilles Rousset. I thought I’d played with football’s worst-ever dresser – big Shaun was all holey jumpers, what a scruffbag – but then along cames Gilles with his ridiculously loud trousers. He’s French, you see.” In ’98 against Rangers Cameron scored another penalty, in regulation time, and, like Raith fans, Jambos have been expressing much gratitude ever since. “The wife and I are aye on the train across to Edinburgh and Hearts fans will say: ‘You were part of the best day of my life.’ Maybe as many as half a dozen have told me their boy is named after me – always Cameron, never Mickey.”

Cameron’s knack for scoring important goals continued in England with Wolves’ first-ever in the Premiership but understandably he sparks fewer explosions for Cowdenbeath and knows that if his role gets any more deep-lying he’ll be off the pitch for good. “Davie Irons [manager of Stenhousemuir] told me recently to keep playing as long as I could because I’d miss it the day I stopped and I’m sure he’s right. At the moment I feel I can influence things on the park as well as off it but I’ll quit if injuries take their toll or if playing gets in the way of management and, yes, that’ll be sad. I didn’t intend to become a manager, but at Wolves when the young players would seek you out it probably dawned on me that I had a fair bit of experience which could be useful, and then this job presented itself. I’m really enjoying it. I’m working with a chairman in Donald Findlay who’s larger than life and hoping that will prepare me for most eventualities. He’s got a sense of humour that’s all his own but I get it. He wasn’t at the East Fife game but phoned me from the Far East for the result. ‘And you scored, too?’ he said. ‘You’ll be thinking this job’s effing easy.’

“Already there have been a couple of incidents at Cowdenbeath ... the Mikey Fleming one [the arrest of the under-19s player over alleged sectarian comments on Twitter] and someone else wanting away because he’s not getting a game. Maybe I’m having my resolve tested, to see if I’m weak. I think they’ll find out I’m not. But in a way I’m glad these things have happened. They must make you a better manager.”

What has he learned from those who’ve managed him? “Jimmy Nick has got such a passion for football. He was still playing at Raith and even when he was struggling to get about the pitch the enthusiasm never waned. He was great for daft games on Fridays to keep things buzzy.

“And Jim Jefferies is easily the softest-spoken manager I’ve worked under. Mind you, he had that snarling Rottweiler, Billy Brown, alongside him at Hearts and I’m looking forward to hearing Billy’s bark again on Saturday, but when Jim spoke you listened. I remember him taking me aside before a cup-tie against Stenhousemuir to tell me I’d gone off the boil and so wouldn’t be playing, but that I’d be back for the Dundee United game. He was true to his word, I scored both our goals against United and went on another wee run. That seemed like good man-management and I admired his honesty.”

After being a team-mate of Paul Ince at Molineux, Cameron played for the self-styled “Guv’nor” at MK Dons. “Paul’s Marmite and you either love him or hate him. We got on well at Wolves, but only after he realised he couldn’t lord it over me like he did some of the other guys!” Dave Jones he describes as his most laid-back manager, one who understood his desire to return to Edinburgh at every available opportunity to see Nicola, the pair having become an item just before his £1.75 million transfer in 2001. “I must have broke the speed limit bombing back up the road listening to all the bangy-bangy dance nonsense I used to like. The things you do for love, eh?”

It was Craig Levein who sold him to Wolves. Cameron, then Hearts captain, told him he was bored with the over-familiarity of the SPL and wanted to try England; Levein understood. But Cameron recounts a dust-up the pair had at Livingston which, after he’d got over the shock, impressed him about his soon-to-be-ex-manager. “We’d played rubbish and lost. I’d scored an absolute screamer, to be fair, but back in the dressing-room Craig was livid. ‘And as for you ... ’ he went, and knocked a bottle of water from my mouth. I knew why he did it. I was leaving, so he exploited that to demonstrate to the rest: ‘If you didn’t know before, I’m boss.’ And I was cool about it because it was great psychology.”

Okay, enough about the good guys – Berti Vogts and Glenn Hoddle? The former, when Scottish coach, took an instant dislike to Cameron, though he was later restored to the dark blue cause, and our man seems to have re-introduced his diplomatic smile to claim he can’t remember the name of the Notts Forest player Vogts publicly declared was the better footballer (this was Gareth Williams). “Berti was a nice guy. Some of his initial judgements were harsh but he suffered because of the cultural difference.”

Similarly under Hoddle at Wolves Cameron realised immediately that his face no longer fitted. “Can I think of anything good to say about him? I’m struggling. He was pretty arrogant and always made Mondays intolerable with these long sessions where we’d have to watch and re-watch the last game. Footballers can only take in so much information!”

Of course we can’t complete Cameron’s story without recalling Munich, and how for a brief, bonkers moment in the old Olympic Stadium in 1995, his Raith were beating Bayern in the Uefa Cup. Technically the Germans were still ahead on aggregate, but who cared about that? “We returned to the dressing-room expecting the most inspirational half-time team-talk in the history of football. Jimmy Nick looked at us, then turned away and burst out laughing! There was no shame in losing 4-1 over two games to the team that eventually won the tournament and my only regret is that we opted to play our home leg at Easter Road. I’d have loved Jurgen Klinsmann and Oliver Kahn to have come over to Stark’s Park. Maybe Central Park will be a culture-shock for Hibs – let’s hope so.”

As a manager Cameron has ambitions to work at the highest level possible but for now is thinking no further ahead than today and a team he loved playing against in Edinburgh derbies, scoring regularly and winning often, at least until the introduction of “class acts” like Franck Sauzee and Russell Latapy. I remind him he had the honour of netting the final goal in Hibs’ famous 6-2 tanking and wish him luck in the cup. “Aye right,” he says, before revealing that the New Year gales blew the roof off the away dugout. “I’m sure we’ll be doing our utmost to replace it in time for the big game.”