Interview: Gary Caldwell on calling in the SAS to toughen up Thistle

it's a cruel game, football. Gary Caldwell's previous club, Chesterfield, are the fourth oldest in the world but heritage no matter how proud simply doesn't insulate a team against those moments of absurdist black humour occurring at the gravest hour which are amusing to the rest of us but not much fun for the stricken faithful.

Partick Thistle manager Gary Caldwell. Picture: John Devlin

The Spireites from the Derbyshire market town have tumbled out of the Football League and are in serious danger of suffering their third relegation on the bounce, with Caldwell having carried the can for their drop from League One to the fourth tier of English football. Along the way, Chesterfield staged a raffle with the prize for the lucky supporter of a seat on the plane for a pre-season tour of Hungary. Major embarrassment: only four tickets were sold. So a club employee made up the name of the winner, then claimed “John Higgins” was ill so couldn’t make the trip. The ruse was rumbled and there were more red faces when the police and the local council stepped in to investigate.

Then the chairman’s right-hand man got involved in a full and frank exchange of views with the club mascot. Memo to men in suits: never fight with those who don sweaty synthetic fur, you’ll never win. The right-hand man attempted damage limitation: his email to Chester the Field Mouse which ran “Be very careful … I will go for you” had simply been a “friendly warning”. Very possibly, small children sobbed.

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Who’d be a football manager? Who’d be one right now? There was a brief moment – September 2017 if I’m not mistaken – when we in Scotland could smugly reassure ourselves: “Well, at least we don’t sack after just five games as Crystal Palace have just done.” Then, mere days later, the panic button was slammed at Ross County of the Premiership but also Falkirk in the Championship. Simon Cowell confronted by his third illusionist of the night in an early regional heat of Britain’s Got Talent couldn’t have thumped his buzzer with more damning conviction.

Well, Caldwell would be a manager. The 55-times-capped Scotland stalwart, fondly remembered for vanquishing a scintillating France side, is into his third post, and being dismissed from both previous ones – Wigan Athletic before Chesterfield – hasn’t put him off trying again at Partick Thistle. We’re in the boardroom at Firhill where a noisy heater above the door can make little impact on what he jokes is “the coldest room in football”. In recent times, Wigan and Chesterfield became the kind of clubs who drop and keep dropping, a nasty habit indeed. Thistle, having skited into the Championship, currently sit bottom, Caldwell only able to secure one win in three months. It seems rude to doubt a man’s sanity in the opening question, but he seemed such a thoughtful footballer in his playing days at Hibernian then Celtic, so … what’s he doing here?

“The simple answer for many, and this is certainly true for me, is that you love football, you’re very passionate about football, and when you suddenly stop putting on the boots, you miss those Saturday afternoons, you miss the sick feeling full of nerves before a game, you miss the competition during the game and you miss the elation when you win. All of that is a drug and for lots of us it’s impossible to give up.”

That’s a thoughtful answer and what you’d expect of the 36-year-old, but what about those attention-deficient chairmen who punch the button so quickly and, unlike Cowell, expect – no demand – that the next poor sucker through the door will be a magician capable of stupendous transformation?

“That kind of thinking isn’t confined to football, it’s throughout society now,” says Caldwell. “In this world ruled by social media, verdicts are instant, decisions are instant. There’s a rush to assess, dispense with, identify what’s coming next. Everything happens so much quicker and that includes the careers of managers. We can say that managers need time and have to be given time but they rarely get it.”

Not a moment to lose, then, and today presents the perfect, if not yet desperate, opportunity to grab another, much-needed victory when Falkirk, just a point and a place above Thistle, come to Firhill. The Jags vs the Bairns might have been some people’s idea of a table-topping tussle by the midway stage of the season. Shows what they know. With Caldwell’s new recruits, Partick produced their best performance under his command last weekend to draw with Dundee United. But Falkirk with their reinforcements bettered that by winning at high-flying Ayr United.

Recruits, reinforcements, command. Military analogies can be difficult to avoid when football gets this tense. Caldwell makes no excuse here – espousing the need for “bravery” and “bodies on the line” today – as well he shouldn’t. Don’t mention the war? He was the one who, to toughen up his team, called in the SAS.

November’s army manoeuvres repeated a stunt from his Wigan days. “In a similar way I was looking at how I could remove the players from normal training to change their mentality and beliefs, but everything was going to cost money. Then Maj Robert Mackay got in touch. He’s a lifelong Thistle fan and it was our good fortune that he wrote to the club offering his help.” The crack soldier from the Parachute Regiment conducted a full inspection of the under-performing team at their next game then summoned them to his base at Garelochhead, Argyll and Bute.

Says Caldwell: “I believe war to be the most uncomfortable environment in which a man could find himself, and of course I say that as someone who’s never been in battle and never wants to be. Football for me at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon is an uncomfortable environment, nothing like a war zone obviously, but what can the guys who’re trained to be in one teach footballers? How can preparing for war help preparing for a match? It was a brilliant day.”

“Brilliant” probably wasn’t the first word scribbled by the Maryhill detachment in any passing-out self-assessment. Yet again it was demonstrated that amid football turmoil, incidental laughs will result. Partick Thistle of course have a chucklesome image which endears them to many, thus playing at soldiers got too much for Belgian midfielder Brice Ntambwe who went AWOL. But there must have been some ingenuity involved in his scarpering because it needed four SAS soldiers to “recapture” him.

The players were kitted out in uniform, daubed in camouflage paint and allowed to handle guns and night-vision goggles and there the fun ended. Split up into three units competing against each other, they had to lug timber, 20-litre cans of water and pretend casualties on stretchers. “Myself and [No 2] Brian Kerr got to see who were good in certain situations, who were leaders, who hung back, who just didn’t want to get involved,” explains Caldwell. Then the major really cranked it up.

“The team were told they were done, that they could relax and have some food, only for the SAS to swoop in and kidnap them.” They were thrown in vans, blindfolded and rag-dolled. “There was noise, shouting in foreign languages, darkness, fierce light, then back to darkness. And after all that, the players had to chip a ball into a bucket five yards away. None of them could do it.

“We were trying to show them that in situations of great anxiety and pressure, the body needs to be perfectly calm in order to be able to complete technical acts.” Such a scenario in the course of a game might be a penalty shootout. Perish the thought this would be in a play-off where Thistle were striving to stay in the Championship. At least the target would be the more familiar, though still scary, dimensions of the goal-frame.

We are talking, Acting Sgt Caldwell and I, while surrounded by the bawbees and trinklets of Thistle’s history. Few clubs can boast a display cabinet holding such solid silver exotica as the Yoker Cup, the Loving Cup and – shiniest of all – the Dental Cup, the latter dating from 1928-29. Caldwell’s honours may be better known: two titles, a Scottish Cup and a League Cup with Celtic, the FA Cup with Wigan and that great gallop into the box to do down France in 2006. But there are no guarantees he will be as successful as a boss, only that’s he’s absolutely determined to give it his best shot.

“To come back to your question about why do this job, I realised early on at Wigan that the lows in football are much lower as a manager. As a player, while you’re part of a team and you only really have yourself to worry about. As a manager, and especially in a situation like that where I’d been a long time as a player and had built up relationships with the owner, the chairman, the doctor, the secretary etc, you’re responsible for the livelihoods, the wellbeing and the happiness of so many people. That’s a helluva lot of pressure so, yes, when it goes wrong the lows are lower. But the highs of being a manager when it goes right are much higher.”

Regarding scenarios where you’re forced to challenge yourself, Stirling-born Caldwell experienced them from the start, growing up behind big brother Steven, a team-mate at Wigan and with Scotland and first Newcastle United. I mention that Jamie Murray bears childhood scars from being biffed with a tennis racket by Andy in a loser’s rage and Caldwell smiles. “Steven will have some marks given him by me. I had to follow him so I was lucky. Being the older brother is harder. You set the benchmark giving the other guy something to aim for and possibly surpass. Steven represented Scotland Schools against England in the Victory Shield and, because the rules were changed, I got to play in the game two years in a row.

“We had plenty of fights. One Christmas we both got boxing gloves. He burst my lip which was probably the only time he managed to cut me. We’re different personalities – he’s the mellow one, I’m more fiery and aggressive. Although I was youngest the top bunk was mine. But we’re both dedicated and driven, these values coming from our parents. He’s in Toronto right now, punditry and academy coaching and loving it there, but we still speak every day. He’s always been there for me for advice and support so I’m still the lucky one.”

Dad-of-three Caldwell’s first manager was Bobby Robson, not a bad introduction to the role. “I wished I had him when I was a bit older. At 16, I didn’t really appreciate how good he was. Recently I watched the documentary about him [More Than a Manager] and it had me in tears.

“He was in his seventies at Newcastle but used to run around the training pitch showing everyone what they should be doing. I thought I knew what I should be doing as a centre-back: getting the better of Alan Shearer. There were times when I thought I had, winning all my headers and dominating him. Yet I could never stop him scoring a goal. He always scored, every day.

“Bobby had such enthusiasm. And such old-school values. Lunch always began at bang on one o’clock, confirmed by Teletext. No one got up to go at the end of the meal until Bobby had said his little piece. That kind of respect has disappeared as the world’s speeded up. He was a stickler for time-keeping. Turn up for a meeting even five seconds late and he’d say: ‘The train’s gone.’ I’ve inherited that attitude from him. Being on time here is non-negotiable.”

You might imagine that, on loan at Hibs, Franck Sauzee was more laidback and, yes, laissez-faire. “Franck was great although sadly he wasn’t my boss for long. First game – away to Celtic when we were struggling, second bottom – he said: ‘Football is enjoyment, I want you to get on the pitch and express yourself.’” Moving to Easter Road permanently, Tony Mowbray would maintain the theme, encouraging Caldwell to play out from the back, make passes with his head. “He told me his team were going to play with youth, flair and tremendous energy and he was right.” This was the side of Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson and up front Derek Riordan and Garry O’Connor; a team of crazy haircuts, although Caldwell kept his barnet nice and sensible.

These Hibees’ high watermark under Mowbray was a third-place finish; should they have achieved more? Probably, although Caldwell, who’s big on psychology, emphasises the mental strength required of any wannabes with ideas of wresting the title from the Old Firm. “Because we were young and carefree and able to hole up in our favourite Rose Street pub every Saturday night that was probably my most enjoyable time in football.” He says this despite the strikers being track-back refuseniks. “Gaz and Deeks never helped the defence out. My abiding memory is of them centering the ball after we’d lost a goal, muttering and shaking their heads. The pair of them should have achieved more in the game but they were brilliant talents.”

And Caldwell says this despite a section of the Hibs support booing him after he signed a pre-contract deal with Celtic. “At times like that you can curl up and die or stand up and be counted. I’ve sometimes been questioned and doubted but would like to think pressure situations challenge me to be better.”

Interestingly he adds that ego comes into it too. “I have one, everybody needs one, not least in football, but you mustn’t let it get too big.

“Every new club, as player or manager, I’ve told myself: ‘I have to be better.’ Parkhead didn’t disabuse him of this. “On my debut we beat Kilmarnock 4-0 but all the talk afterwards was about the goal I nearly gave away.” He credits Gordon Strachan, another hugely influential boss in his life and times, with improving him massively as a player. Still, winning over the doubters in the stands was hard. There were own goals and blunders in big European games. But the breakthrough, transforming him into a cult hero with a very un-Celtic-like chant of “Heid! Heid!”, came with his all-action performances in two Old Firm games to chase down Rangers’ seven-point lead in the last handful of games of 2007-08 and hoist the flag.

The sack from Wigan hurt Caldwell. After promotion back to the Championship, some players reckoned the achievement to be down to them and got “greedy”. He jumped back into management to “right a wrong” – too hastily. He should have taken a break which he eventually did post-Chesterfield, venturing to Ghana to coach kids “amid mud-huts and poverty like I’d never seen” and calling on Sir Alex Ferguson at the great man’s office in Wilmslow, Cheshire, with a bottle of Italian red from the handily-placed offy over the road to learn from the great man.

“It was football gold. I thought to myself ‘Doesn’t he have something better to do?’ but he made me soup and sandwiches and, under a big photograph of him and Jock Stein, we talked for two and a half hours, not about Man U and Cantona and Beckham, but East Stirling and St Mirren and making your way in management with players you can trust.”

Hopefully these crumbs from Fergie’s table can help Caldwell at Thistle. This September will mark 110 years since the very first match played at Firhill – where will the team be by then? “I could say that no one knows because that’s why we all love football, isn’t it? But these fans – and I understand their pain right now – will have a team of which they can be proud.” And with that’s he’s off to call the major to find out if the session with the SAS could be repeated.

Surely the shock factor won’t be there second time around, I say.

“Oh, I think between us we could come up with something else just as challenging… ”