Interview: Marvin Bartley on Hibs, Livi’s plastic pitch, becoming a manager and being ‘a spoiler of the beautiful game’

Livingston enforcer Marvin Bartley at Almondvale. Picture:' Neil Hanna Photography
Livingston enforcer Marvin Bartley at Almondvale. Picture:' Neil Hanna Photography
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If Marvin Bartley was a football club, he would be Livingston, where he now earns his living much to the chagrin of many Hibernian fans who bade farewell to him at the end of last season but are all too acutely aware of the hole he left in the Easter Road side.

Hibs remain close to his heart and are the club, he says, he supports. But his new employers fit his work ethic and align with a mindset that cares little for what outsiders think. Happy not to be headline-grabbing, he, like Livingston, sees merit in maximising resources, capitalising on strengths and, quite frankly, frustrating opponents.

The home dressing room at Almondvale is decorated with sayings extolling the virtues of hard work, determination and teamwork and they echo the beliefs of a player who has had to dig deep for everything the game has given him.

Like every other kid he grew up seeking the glory. He wanted to be a striker and wanted to be scoring goals at the very top level. Instead, he saw former academy colleagues leave Reading for the likes of Chelsea or Arsenal while he dropped behind, moving to midfield then centre back before being released and having to find his way back via Sunday league football.

It was a hard slog and included getting up at 5am to work in the cold, wind and rain to fit conservatories and double glazing before turning up for evening training in unglamorous venues. But he has no regrets. It has given him an appreciation that drives him now, even at the age of 33, to improve himself and ensure he has enough knowledge to keep him in the sport rather than have to contemplate a return to the everyday grind.

It also makes him the perfect player for Livingston, who have continued to defy reputations and punch above their weight. They bagged a notable victory over Celtic earlier this month and have started the season in a way that leaves them closer to third spot in the Premiership than relegation trouble.

“Maybe more players could do with going out and living in the real world,” reasons Bartley. “There’s nothing wrong with the job I did but I never wanted to go back to it and the best way to make sure of that was to give everything I could as a player.”

Spurred on by a determination not to fail, rather than an overwhelming dream of succeeding, the realisation of a career that has thus far included Scottish Cup success, promotion and European football with Hibs, has not skewed his self-awareness.

A big character; bold, noisy and, like a boxer at a weigh-in ,attempting to sprinkle a little bit of razzamatazz and spice by winding up team-mates and rivals, he can do bravado. But, that is backed up by a work ethic, an openness that it is all about gaining an advantage and an honest understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses.

“Look, let’s be honest, I’m a spoiler of the beautiful game. If I’m on your team, I think you probably think ‘brilliant’ but if I’m not, then you think ‘what the hell is this guy doing?’ But that’s my job. I want people to come away and think I stopped everything.

“Here we have a team like that. When even your striker is a spoiler then you know you are a hard working team! But that is a testament to [manager] Gary Holt and [his assistant] David Martindale for the squad they have put together on a much smaller budget than the majority of clubs in this league. It’s also credit to the boys because they are willing to take on advice from the older players and they work hard in training and in matches. It has gone well so far but there are games we have drawn when we thought we should have won and we can still improve.

“Maybe people think we just go out to spoil games and are happy with draws but we go out to win and the perfect thing for me is when people go away from here and say that team is horrible, that’s what I want people to say. I don’t want people to come here and enjoy it, I want them to be battered and bruised and that suits my style down to the ground.”

His body took time to adjust to Livingston’s artificial pitch and he still requires a daily ice bath. But given how much the surface irritates opponents, Bartley can see the benefits.

“The pitch gives us a massive advantage so why wouldn’t I like it?” he says. “We train on it every day and I love it when I hear fans of bigger clubs saying we should have a grass pitch as it gives us an advantage. I just think ‘OK, if that’s unfair, we should all have a wage cap as well. Give us some of your money, we will sign a few boys on £30,000 a week and then we will put in a grass pitch and we can all see where that takes us’. Until then it is all about gaining small advantages.”

This week he heads back to Hibs with Livingston to face a side looking for more than marginal gains after a disappointing start to the season. From the outside looking in Bartley wonders if too many of the Hibs newcomers arrived in Scotland underestimating the standard of the game here and says that it is time for some real characters “to step out of the shadows”. He doesn’t want that to happen on Wednesday night but would love to see his former club discover some form and fight before next weekend’s League Cup semi-final against Celtic.

“I don’t think anyone will be happy with how things are going there,” Bartley says of Hibs. “The manager [Paul Heckingbottom] is a perfectionist and I wouldn’t say a bad word about him. I didn’t start a game under him [at the end of last season] but the things I learned in that short spell of time will serve me well when I go on to be a manager. But everyone there is frustrated, of course they are.

“No-one is happy, let’s not pretend they are, but now its about character. It’s not just about what you do at 3pm on Saturday, it’s about what happens through the week and about making demands of each other.

“I’m not the most gifted footballer but it makes no sense to me why you would turn up and not give your all. Why not? Cause you couldn’t be bothered? Well, just f*** off then! Get out the game.

“That’s why I will always say my piece. People can say what they want about me as a player – and I’ve had bad games, I’ve had bad spells – but they will never be able to say I didn’t give 100 per cent.

“I want to win, that’s just the way I am. When I came to Scotland, I didn’t think about the standard of football, I just gave my all and hoped I was contributing. If you don’t turn up with that attitude, lo and behold, you are going to be shocked and you are going to fail.”

But the duration of service of a club shouldn’t influence demands. It is all about standards, according to Bartley.

“I came in here and, on the second day, training wasn’t going the way it should have been going because of the effort not quality and I let people know in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t acceptable.”

Taking the youngsters under his wing, he encouraged extra work, repetitiously addressing weaknesses until a missed effort against Rangers became an instinctive finish against Celtic and he loves that there is appetite for that among the likes of Lyndon Dykes, Livingston’s impressive attacker.

“Maybe Hibs just need to do a bit more of that. I don’t know the new players but the other guys are a good bunch who I know wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

Tapping into his time at Easter Road, Bartley knows how big the upcoming semi-final could be. The 2016 League Cup final loss to Ross County still haunts him but he says it probably proved a blessing in disguise and paved the way for the far more notable Scottish Cup final triumph later that season.

“Personally, I was thinking I can’t get to another final and f*** it up. For me, defeat hurts me a lot more than winning pleases me.

“It was an amazing journey to two cup finals that season and I still remember the first final and at no point in that game did I feel we were going to lose. So, to concede that late goal… That hurt. It was so late on and there was no time to come back.

“The after party was going to be at the club and we didn’t know that but arriving back on the bus, we saw the balloons and that really, really hurt. But we made up for it and no-one really remembers that one. Win a cup at Hibs and you are legends. That’s what the older guys need to explain to the new guys.

“It could be what turns their season around.”

Happy to look back, Bartley has always been more concerned with the future. Showing remarkable foresight, he has been collating his “black book of coaching” since he was 24, jotting down things he likes from managers and sessions he has experienced or seen on TV or YouTube, and he is well on his way to collecting his coaching qualifications.

He has been coaching the reserves, he is enrolled on a football management course at Napier University, sharing a lecture room with another 14 pros and ex pros, including former Hibs colleagues Darren McGregor, David Gray, Steven Whittaker and Hearts captain Christophe Berra, as well current Ayr United boss Mark Kerr and Dundee manager James McPake.

“It has been unbelievable. Basically it is everything you will do as a manager away from the coaching, it is all the other side of it, like managing up to the chairman or director of football, managing down to the academy staff, how you build a club from the inside out, not just what’s on the pitch. It’s been brilliant.

“As a player, you are limited in your ability and I could never be a Ronaldo or a Messi but, as a coach and a manager, I believe that the sky’s the limit. I don’t believe there is anything that can stop me. I can always evolve and keep learning and then it is just how I get my ideas across to players. I believe I can manage at the highest level and that will be the next goal for Marvin Bartley.”

He will give his all trying to get there, of that there’s no doubt.