As recently as October, Ally McCoist had surely established himself as a favourite to succeed John McGlynn as PFA Scotland manager of the year. The rookie manager had maintained the champions’ position at the top of the Scottish Premier League, helped by a run of seven consecutive away victories.
In the space of a few short months, however, McCoist has seen his hopes of leading Rangers to the title in his maiden season evaporate, along with the funds which he had been promised to help him achieve this feat.
It is possible to claim that his very job description has changed. When once it was manager, now it is figurehead. When once he trained football players, now he counsels them.
So what are the criteria for a manager of the year? Craig Levein, the Scotland manager, pondered this question yesterday at Hampden Park as he launched the start of voting for the PFA Scotland award, won last year by Raith Rovers’ McGlynn. The selection of the Stark’s Park club’s manager confirmed that recognition does not always hinge on having won something. There are other factors which tend to be taken into consideration, including reaction to adversity.
While he did not go as far as propose McCoist as a candidate, Levein did make a point of praising his conduct at such an extraordinary time. Rangers are experiencing varying degrees of anguish both on and off the field.
Although it barely registers next to the greater matter of the club’s future, Rangers will seek to preserve a record of never having lost four consecutive matches at Ibrox when they entertain Celtic in just over a fortnight’s time – providing they make it that far. And yet in October, after nine consecutive SPL victories, McCoist was revelling in the best start to a season made by a rookie Rangers manager since Bill Struth in 1920.
It is a distressing situation, one which Levein has observed from afar. He is naturally reluctant to become involved in the complicated subject of Rangers’ finances, but is firm on one thing. McCoist, he believes, is emerging with a huge amount of credit.
“I’ve got a great deal of sympathy for him but to be the manager of Rangers is a really difficult job,” he said. “It’s an experienced person’s job, generally, and he has gone into it quite young – both into coaching and into the manager’s job. You don’t expect to have to deal with some of the things he’s had to deal with.
“Alastair is a lot tougher than people give him credit for,” he added. “They don’t realise how strong a character he is. He very much has Rangers at heart and, although it is tough for him, Rangers couldn’t have a better man fighting the corner for the staff, the players and the supporters.”
Levein acknowledged the extra toll being taken on account of McCoist’s well-known depth of feeling for the club where he made his name as a player. He also remarked on McCoist’s growing isolation at the top end of a club where credible figures are now so few and far between.
“I think it will probably take more out of him because he is investing so much of himself [in it],” said Levein. “It’s a really tough, challenging situation for him.
“Who else is there? There’s the administrators and him. He is carrying the whole weight of the club on his shoulders. There is nobody else. Everybody else has scarpered and he is left holding the baby.”
Those in charge of the country’s 42 senior clubs plus the national team manager are allowed a vote in the PFA Scotland manager of the year award. Levein backed a winner in McGlynn last year but, he says, there are several options this time around, not least Neil Lennon, McCoist’s opposite number at Celtic. While Rangers have imploded, the Parkhead side have gone from strength to strength.
“I think Neil Lennon has an outstanding chance, because of the difficulties he’s had and how he has worked his way through the problems,” said Levein. He described the change in fortunes since Celtic trailed Kilmarnock by three goals at half-time on 15 October as a “miraculous turnaround”.
Lennon’s side managed to retrieve a point from this bleak situation by scoring three times in the second half and now lead the SPL by 21 points, which, even when Rangers’ ten-point penalty for entering administration is considered, is still quite an achievement. “The guillotine was being sharpened,” reflected Levein. “That’s how close it was and he [Lennon] says himself that his head was on the chopping block.”
Levein also proposed Motherwell manager Stuart McCall and Peter Houston, his own successor at Dundee United and current assistant coach with Scotland, as potential managers of the year.
Under McCall, Motherwell remain on course to finish runners-up to Celtic. This would hand the Fir Park side a Champions League qualifying spot in McCall’s first full season as manager.
“It’s natural to talk about guys punching above their weight,” he said. “With Motherwell’s budget, where should they sit in the Premier League? Sixth, seventh?” On the subject of Houston, Levein recalled the bad feeling which temporarily developed between the manager and Tannadice chairman Stephen Thompson after a run of poor results earlier in the season. Like Lennon, however, Houston has succeeded in turning things around. “What was going on was ridiculous,” said Levein, of his old club. “I’m glad that common sense prevailed there and the manager was left to get on with the job and do what is necessary.”