Jackie McNamara bids to rebuild reputation at York

Jackie McNamara is getting back in the swing of football management with lowly York City. Picture: Gordon Clayton
Jackie McNamara is getting back in the swing of football management with lowly York City. Picture: Gordon Clayton
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“Jackie McNamara? Ah’d never bluidy ’erd o’ ’im!” The thick Yorkshire brogue cannot disguise the scepticism.

The visitor from Scotland is required to flesh out the details for the benefit of the flat cap-wearing Ken Horwell. The 86-year-old is occupying a seat in the Main Stand directly across the aisle from the sliver of wooden seats constituting the press box at Bootham Crescent, soon-to-be-demolished home of York City.

I tried not to look behind me. It’s gone. It’s like my playing career – it’s over now

Jackie McNamara

Horwell’s Minstermen-supporting credentials stretch back to 1941. He watched Arthur Bottom, a free-scoring striker who was a member of the York team that reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1955, losing out in a replay to Newcastle United.

Bottom is not the best player he has watched play in a York City shirt, however. Neither is Keith Houchen, the former Hibernian striker sitting behind us in the press seats, and who played at York in the mid 1980s. He scored a last-minute penalty to knock Arsenal out of the FA Cup in January 1985.

Annoyingly for York fans, this heroic deed was eclipsed by Houchen’s FA Cup final winning goal for Coventry City against Spurs two years later, when he dived to plant a perfect header past Ray Clemence.

So now, when the striker’s name is brought up, it is inevitably this strike is remembered rather than his winner versus Don Howe’s Arsenal on a snowbound pitch at Bootham Crescent. It kind of sums up York City’s history of being, well, forgotten about.

“Keep the Faith” implores the message on the sign across the entrance to a ground not too dissimilar to Forfar Athletic’s Station Park. Horwell has kept the faith, even though he hasn’t seen a win in ten games.

The honour of best York player he has seen goes to Eamon Dunphy, the wilful Irishman who went on to make a virtue out of being a journeyman knocking around journeyman clubs after signing from Manchester United in 1965.

But while Horwell’s knowledge of York is unsurpassable, he knows next to nothing of McNamara, who was introduced to the home fans before Saturday’s defeat by Plymouth Argyle in slightly odd manner, just before a minute’s silence following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

So who is Jackie McNamara? Well, there’s the 33 Scottish international caps for a start, including representing his country at the 1998 World Cup finals. A Uefa Cup finalist with Celtic, where he played nearly 300 games and won nine major honours. Promising manager at Partick Thistle, a more-than-promising one at Dundee United, until his three best players were sold from under him.

Indeed, he has even been described as the best manager at Tannadice since the glory days of Jim McLean. Admittedly, the person who figured this out was McNamara himself, when he was paraded in front of local reporters at his unveiling nearly a fortnight ago.

“Well, if ‘e’s so good, what the bluidy ’ell is ’e doin’ ’ere then?” wondered Horwell.

As is so often the way, it takes someone of advancing years to cut through the bulls**t. Horwell got to the nub of the matter. It was exactly the thought that formed while walking towards the ground. Normally the crowds thicken upon nearing a football stadium before a game.

In York, however, the crowds thin out as you battle on through the masses of tourists, stag and hen party revellers as well as other Saturday afternoon thrill-seekers to emerge into an oasis of calm that is the environs of Bootham Crescent.

There is, though, a sizable contingent making up Derek Adams’ barmy army; 721, to be precise, Plymouth fans have made the eight-hour coach journey from Devon. Which means there are just under 3000 home supporters present to see McNamara create some unwanted history by becoming the first York City manager to lose his first three games since Dick Duckworth in 1950.

So what exactly is Jackie McNamara doing here? With the best will in the world, York City are no Dundee United. They might not even be Partick Thistle. Their shortcomings at the bottom of League Two are plain to see during a first half in which high-flying Plymouth, featuring several Scottish football cast-offs, outplay and out-muscle them to an almost embarrassing degree.

Jake Jervis, a former Ross County player, got things underway after 19 minutes with the opening goal, chesting in a cross from Graham Carey, once of Ross County and St Mirren and the game’s outstanding performer. Carey himself scored the second two minutes before half-time after good wing play by Gregg Wylde, yet another recruit from Scotland.

How does the standard compare to Scottish Premiership football, McNamara was asked afterwards. “It’s hard to say,” he replied. “You can see lads like Carey coming down here – he was a standout today. He has started the season very well and has scored a few goals, and has a fantastic left foot. Then there’s Jervis up front and Gregg Wylde, who lost his way a bit in the last couple of years. He has obviously found a bit of confidence playing at this level, and is looking a lot better.”

Unfortunately for McNamara, it is Adams, the former Ross County manager now going so well at Plymouth, who has the benefit of these players.

It says everything that McNamara felt compelled to persuade 36-year-old Jonathan Greening, who retired from professional football 18 months ago and is a development coach at the club, to pull his boots back on.

He tasted league football for the first time since May 2014 when he came on at half-time. The long-haired midfielder, who started his career at York, very obviously helped his team make a contest of it at least. Turning to veterans, particularly already retired ones, isn’t what McNamara is known for.

But his preference for fielding young, hungry players was underlined in Ben Godfrey’s strike for York near the end of a game that included ten minutes of additional time due to a sickening head injury sustained by centre-half Dave Winfield.

The 17-year-old Godfrey scored his first senior goal in the 99th minute, meaning York at least “won” the second half. But with their next three games against sides in the top six, McNamara could be up against it as he looks to secure some momentum after a wretched start.

Just three games in, he has already been knocked out of two cups. It is very different to his start at United, which included a 3-0 win over Rangers in the Scottish Cup in his first match.

Still, the 42 year-old is looking upwards, and to the future. York City are seasoned non-achievers, so it is hardly his fault. The decline did not begin under McNamara.

Later, he sat down with a group of four Scottish journalists who had made the journey south for his home debut. He contemplated the change of circumstances in a managerial career that seemed destined for the very top a short time ago.

“I had to get out, and re-charge and start enjoying it,” he said, following the painful end to his Dundee United experience, amid contract revelations, the sale of top players and, latterly, consistently poor results.

“I needed to forget about the other stuff. I needed to get back to being a football manager again.

“As a player and a person I tried not to look behind me,” he added. “It’s gone. It’s like my playing career – it’s over now. This is the next challenge, to improve things here.”

So we left McNamara to continue introducing himself to old Ken Horwell and the rest of the Minstermen faithful. They cling to the desperate hope he is the man to save this welcoming little club from the nightmare scenario of a drop down to the Vanarama National League.