James McDonagh has been to Scottish Cup finals as a coach and he has helped nurture some of the best young players in Scotland, but when he turned up at his grandfather’s house recently with the League Two Manager of the Month award, he finally realised that his decision to step out of the shadows and take charge of Edinburgh City had been the right one.
“My granddad is 90,” explained the former Hibs and Falkirk staffer, “and I took it with me to see him on Saturday and it’s the first time in my life I’ve known him to ask to have his photo taken. My dad said he’d never known that either. So it’s things like that which make it worthwhile.”
The award was deserved recognition for a brilliant start to the season, with the club’s fortunes having performed a volte face in the months since McDonagh took the risky decision to move into front line management at this level.
Topping the pack a quarter of a way through the current campaign, it is a remarkable turnaround for a club who finished nearly 50 points behind top place last term when the biggest concern was how to keep the club out of trouble and avoid a relegation play-off.
That was when McDonagh was convinced to swap coaching for managing.
“It was a risk. I remember speaking to Peter [Houston, who he had assisted at Falkirk] at the time. I thought I would have a wee spell out of the game [after they were let go by the club in September 2017] and it would be fine. But I remember taking my daughter to Gullane Golf Club the following Saturday when Falkirk were playing Morton and Falkirk scored and it was just the worst I’ve ever been.”
But just weeks later Edinburgh City offered him a way back in. It was a solution but he wasn’t sure it was the right one.
“I spoke to Peter and said ‘say I get Edinburgh City relegated, where do I go from there?’ He told me it wouldn’t make me a bad coach. It might just mean management is not for me. So I thought, ‘right I can do this. I have done harder things than this…’
“Then, a few weeks in, I’m thinking: ‘This team can’t score a goal. How am I going to keep them in the league?’
The realisation of the task probably didn’t hit me until two or three games in, then I thought: ‘I really have risked everything.’
“I don’t have international caps where people can say: ‘Remember he’s done that,’ or: ‘He scored that goal,’ or whatever. In reality it was a massive challenge.”
But it was one he met head on. There were changes as he demanded greater professionalism from his part-time players and the club as a whole. From swapping pies for pizza, to ensuring there is a physio and a doctor at every session, his players have adapted but, he admits, so has he.
“There have been challenging times. At times I’ve dealt with people well, other times I’ve learnt and would now do it differently. But I stand by the changes I made. There is more accountability now.
‘Yes, people give up their time but this is a professional club and I still expect things to be done to a standard. There have been plenty challenging conversations, confrontations, whatever you want to call it.
“When I first came in I thought everyone would need to come up to my level of work and what I expected. A year ago I would say no way will I change, this is what I believe and this is how it will work. But I have changed.
‘Although they are getting some money for this, they also have lives, family, work, and that’s the most important thing. But in the year I’ve been there hardly any of these have missed training. They don’t.
“I asked the question about putting on extra nights but minimum pay comes into it, hiring facilities. It’s not like full-time where if the manager says you’re in tomorrow then that’s it.
“I still do Tuesday/Thursday. I inherited a training time of 8pm to 10pm and I thought it was a nightmare. Actually, it limits excuses. It lets people get home, it’s great if you have a family or work late.”
And while he had experiences to draw on, sitting in the dug-out for three Scottish Cup finals, under Pat Fenlon at Hibs and Houston at Falkirk, bringing youngsters like Jason Cummings through the Hibs ranks, and being involved in games at Celtic Park, Ibrox and Hampden, he says the past year has still been an education.
But he and his players have passed every test it has thrown at him so far. Which is why grandad is so proud.