John Hughes still inspired by tragic Craig Gowans

Hughes determined to earn winner’s medal and dedicate it to young player who died ten years ago

Hughes determined to earn winner’s medal and dedicate it to young player who died ten years ago

When John Hughes guided Falkirk to the Scottish Cup final in 2009, he wanted to pay tribute to Craig Gowans, a 17-year-old player for the club who had died in a training ground accident four years earlier. Now, as he heads back to the national stadium, this time going up against his former employers as manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the former youth player remains foremost in his thoughts.

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The last time he honoured Gowans’ memory by affording his dad, John, the role of leading the teams out at Hampden. This time, he says he wants to dedicate a winner’s medal to the late teenager who remains his biggest inspiration.

Tonight the manager of the Highland club will pick up the William Hill Scottish Football Writers’ Manager of the Year award at a dinner in Glasgow. It follows on from the one he received at the recent PFA Scotland dinner, and next weekend he will hope to add a Scottish Cup victory to the lengthy list of this season’s achievements, which already include guiding the Inverness club into European competition for the first time. But he will still take time out to remember Gowans, who was electrocuted at Falkirk’s training ground when a long pole for nets he was carrying struck an overhead cable.

“I was thinking about fate,” Hughes said. “It’s ten years since Craig Gowans died and to be playing Falkirk in a Scottish Cup final? The last time I managed in a Scottish Cup final it was his dad John who led the team out. And everything I do, that young kid’s my inspiration. I’ve lost people close to me, my brother, parents, and it’s different. You handle it because you have the rest of your family. With Craig, that young kid is my inspiration.

“I spoke to John the other morning because for the tenth anniversary they are doing a 72-hour football marathon to get in the Guinness Book of Records. They’re a wonderful family and I always look back at him. He was a top academic, he could’ve been anything he wanted to be, but we offered him a football contract and he took it.

“I look at Scott Arfield and where he is now and often wonder ‘Where would the kid be?’ He was an Alan Hansen, he cruised, he was quick, strong, good passer – and he was caring and kind as well. Maybe that was the flaw in his game, he tried to help too many people, but that was his character.

“Over the years, when I feel sorry for myself, I just think of him and it gets me going again. If the cup comes back to Inverness and I get a medal, I will be dedicating it to Craig, that’s for sure. I’ll never forget him.”

At Inverness, Hughes is creating a bright future, but he knows the past is intrinsically wrapped up in that. Never more so than now. Winning the Scottish Cup would make history. It would be the first time in the club’s relatively short life that they would possess that piece of silverware but, given his links with next week’s opponents, he says the pain of defeat would be eased by his close association with opponents Falkirk, whom he served as both player and manager with distinction.

“It’ll be a great day and if the cup doesn’t come back to the Highlands, it’s going to a great club. I really mean that. I had 11 great years there as a player and manager. Every time I think back to my time there as a player I just start laughing. I couldn’t tell you half of it! Some of the characters we had, the terracing at Brockville, all the carry on we had – the place was falling apart but it was our home from home. It was a fantastic time for me.

“They gave me the opportunity to go and coach and manage and we had some hard times. I mentioned Craig Gowans but we also got denied our rightful place in the SPL, we had to sell Brockville, play at Stenhousemuir, build ourselves back up. I’m proud of my time there.

“It didn’t finish too well, I have to say that – one or two of them got a bit naughty toward the end, the way it was handled when I was leaving for Hibs. But I wouldn’t let that spoil some great memories.”

Those memories include a season playing with current Falkirk manager Peter Houston, whom he refers to as the “Ginger God”.

“Before you talk about Peter as a player you need to talk about Peter as a guy because he’s one of the real good guys in Scottish football. He conducts himself in a great manner and it’s been great to see him getting back in the game and doing so well at Falkirk. I’ve got so much respect for him.

“But Peter’s won it before, hasn’t he? So don’t be greedy, share it out!”

Yogi – and Falkirk – came close in 2009, when Rangers denied them, but he says he and his players will be better prepared this time around.

“That was a tough week because we played Inverness on the Saturday to see who stayed in the SPL – fate again, eh? Michael Higdon scored the only goal of the game which sent them down and kept us up. It was an emotional day. Then we got to focus on the final and we went down south and trained at Sunderland’s facility, and I felt we gave as good as we got against Rangers. We were the better football team on the day but couldn’t unlock the door.”

Falkirk came out on top against Inverness Caley Thistle in that SPL decider six years ago but fortunes have fluctuated as the clubs’ histories and Yogi’s own career have overlapped at key moments throughout the years.

It was the Highland club who spoiled the party as Falkirk said their goodbyes to Brockville, Ryan Christie’s old man, Charlie, scoring the winner for Inverness that day.

“Aye, there it is again… fate!,” says Hughes. “I’m just hoping it’s a right good day for Scottish football.”

And hoping that all the work he put into developing many of the youngsters who are now first-time regulars at Falkirk does not come back to haunt him. “I think the ones who are in the first team now, Sibbald, Alston, Duffie, were all in there. But listen, we’re desperate to win the cup and usually when you get to this stage you’re playing one half of the Old Firm. But this is fresh and it’s good for Scottish football, two provincial clubs, one from the Highlands, one from the Championship. It’ll be a great day.”

His preference, though, would be to honour one of Falkirk’s own – Gowans – while still securing success for his current club.

“The players, they’ve been fantastic to work with and I think they’ve really bought into the style of football we play. When we’re at it we’re really not a bad side and it’s really hammered home to them that we can get success doing this. We’ve captured their imagination and enthusiasm by doing it differently so all credit to them. But this will be the hardest game of the season, I’m telling you right now. I’ve watched them and watched them and they’re a right good football side. We’ll go in as favourites and have to have a strong mindset and play our game.

“I’m actually quite calm about it because getting there has been a remarkable achievement. But it’ll be a cracking cup final.”