EVENTS have a habit of happening to Gary Locke. Twists of fate. Sudden swings in fortune. In fact, still only 39, he has probably undergone more out-of-the-blue occurrences than many managers experience in their whole career.
It all began two years ago when John McGlynn left Hearts by mutual consent. Staff at the club were told that former Dundee United manager Peter Houston was to take over, but then the fabled fax machine whirred into action with a decree from owner Vladimir Romanov: give the job to Gary.
It continued last May when newly-relegated Hearts, out of administration and under fresh ownership, dispensed with his services. A month later, an offer to become assistant to Kilmarnock boss Allan Johnston gave Locke a rapid return to the game.
And then, just two weeks ago, came two more twists. I’m calling it quits at the end of the season, Johnston announced on the Thursday. You’re going now, Kilmarnock told him the following day, giving Locke the post of caretaker manager for the rest of the season.
According to one version of events, Johnston, Locke and some colleagues were chatting just before the manager was about to begin the usual Thursday press conference. A casual discussion about what might be that week’s topic of conversation was abruptly ended when Johnston got up and declared “F*** it! I’m going to tell them I’m leaving.”
And tell them he did, setting in train the sequence of events that brings us to this Thursday morning. We’re standing in a corridor at Rugby Park, between the media room, where an ebullient Josh Magennis is holding court, and the catering outlets with their adverts urging you to “Say aye tae a Killie pie!”
Locke is in the same blue-and-white tracksuit he has worn all training at season, but he’s the main man again after those eight months as Johnston’s No 2, and perhaps the aura of authority about him is slightly more enhanced as a result of his unforeseen elevation. But the main impression you get from him, as always, is that here is a man who enjoys what he does.
Even during that toughest of seasons at Hearts, he had an almost masochistic approach to coping with adversity. As well as relegation, Locke’s time in charge included a 7-0 Scottish Cup defeat by Celtic – a 40-year nadir for the team at Tynecastle – and yet he remained indomitably upbeat.
The saying “What does not kill me makes me stronger” is a popular one these days, but the reality in many cases is that people, if not exactly killed, are weakened, left psychologically scarred, by traumatic experiences. So what has given Locke this ability to bounce back from the harshest blows?
“Maybe the knocks that I had in my playing career. Getting to a cup final with Hearts, being the youngest-ever captain – and then your day’s ruined after six minutes,” he says, referring to the 1996 defeat by Rangers in which an early injury ended his involvement. “You’ve got to show a bit of character to come back from that. Then every time I seemed to be on the verge of maybe a big move or a Scotland call-up I had knee problems as well. You’ve just got to learn to deal with these problems and react to them as well as you possibly can.
“You get a few knocks in your coaching career, manager’s career – you see managers you feel have done a great job and then the next thing they’re out of a job. So it’s a tough environment to work in, but I love the game. I’m very fortunate to be in the position I’m in.
“I never look back. Always look forward. Try to be positive. That’s what I’ll always try and do.”
Locke was 20 when he played briefly in that fateful cup final, so he has had half a lifetime to learn that footballing fortunes can be very fickle. Yet, while that general fact may no longer come as a shock to him, the most recent specific instance, Johnston’s decision to quit, was unexpected.
“Yeah, it did surprise me when he told me,” he confirms. “Obviously I’d worked really closely with Allan all season. I’d travelled down with him every morning and he hadn’t mentioned anything. I think he just thought he’d had enough.
“So, really surprised and disappointed, because Allan was one of the main reasons I went back to Kilmarnock. He was the one that picked up the phone in the summer when I never had a job and believed in me, which was fantastic. What sums him up is the fact that, even when he left here, he was thinking about me as well, because he said to me ‘Look, if you get offered the job I want you to try and take it’. That’s the only reason why I’m still standing here today.
“Obviously he didn’t just decide that morning. I think he’d maybe had a couple of weeks where he’d spoken it over with his wife, Nicola, his family and his brother. He’s very close with Sammy, his brother, who played. It was a surprise decision for us all, but the mark of Allan is that he was thinking about myself even when he was making that decision, and I certainly can’t thank him enough. I think he knows how highly I respect him, and not just as the manager here. He’s a close friend as well.
“You see the amount of people that are out the game that have been on coaching courses. There’s a lot of fantastic coaches and brilliant managers that haven’t got jobs, and it’s really difficult these days to get a job. But I was very, very fortunate when I left Hearts that I got a couple of phone calls from people that I hugely admire in the game and that have done particularly well. To get these types of people phoning you up and asking what you’re doing was humbling. I felt I made the right decision at the right time coming to Kilmarnock with Allan.
“Obviously I was really keen to get back involved in football. I felt I’d done a good job as manager of Hearts and, once I knew Hearts weren’t going to offer me a job there, I had to look elsewhere.
“At the time I didn’t want to take too big a step backwards, and I felt that coming to Kilmarnock as assistant was the right move at the right time. And fortunately enough I feel that we’ve done okay here. I can now try and get a few wins between now and the end of the season and we’ll see what happens after that.”
With a ban on new signings and a 15-point deduction for going into administration to deal with, many people would have turned down the invitation to manage Hearts last season, expecting that their reputations would be damaged by relegation. But for Locke, who had returned to his old club at the start of 2010 as first-team coach, accepting the job had nothing to do with his reputation. It was about serving Hearts during one of the biggest crises in their history.
“I grew up supporting Hearts all my life. To play for Hearts was a huge ambition of mine, but to manage them was something I never really thought would happen. But it happened and I was pleased with the job I did there.
“I was really proud of what I did at Hearts. It was a very, very difficult period to be the manager, there’s no shirking away from that, but I felt that I tried to approach everything head on.
“I tried to be as positive as I could be. And I’m trying to do the same here.
“When you’re in charge, you’ve got to show the boys every day that you’re up for the fight, you’re up for the challenge. I certainly faced a few challenges, but, as I said all along that season, I was learning, the players were learning, and I felt at the end of it we all came out of it not just better professionals in terms of football, but better people as well.
“It was a learning curve for me last season. When you’re dealing with first-team players, you’re expecting them to be able to do things you want them to do. But last year at Hearts, I was looking at young guys making mistakes that they should have been making in the reserves, to be fair – but the way things were, they had to play in the first team. You saw at the end of the season, when they eradicated those mistakes, they all became good players.”
Those players were promoted before they were ready, and Locke admits that, in some ways, he too was unprepared for life in the Hearts hot seat. Above all, he had to curb the frustration that is only natural when results are not going your way. “I got a harsh lesson in biting my tongue, because if you criticise young players, they’re not going to respond. They respond to encouragement and that goes for the fans, too.”
The need for that lesson in psychology was understandable, because certainly, in Locke’s younger playing days, there were some coaches and managers who believed in tough love rather than gentle encouragement. But he believes it is too simplistic to state that the business of handling players has gone full circle from bullying to mollycoddling, and that the best approach lies in understanding that different players respond to different stimuli at different times.
“It’s unfair to say older managers slagged you off, because we got plenty of encouragement from the managers I worked under. It was just slightly different when you weren’t playing well and most players my age will tell you that.
“Managers in those days would give you the hairdryer, but some players respond to that. It’s a balance and I think the young lads respond better to encouragement, so that’s what I try to do.”
After being all but inevitable for months, relegation for Hearts was confirmed in April, after a 4-2 win at Firhill on the same day that St Mirren guaranteed their safety by winning at Motherwell. There was a degree of pride in the fact that the team had gone down with a victory that day – and that, at the start of the same week, they had beaten a Hibernian side for whom a victory would have sent their city rivals down.
In a season with few moments of light relief, that 2-0 home win was a massive highlight, rendered all the sweeter by the fact that thousands of Hibs fans had turned up with fancy hats and balloons, hoping to celebrate a Hearts relegation party. Another highlight – greater in footballing terms, if not so memorable as the derby – was a 5-0 victory a few weeks later, also at Tynecastle, over Kilmarnock. “It would have been a nightmare, especially with me being a local lad, if we’d lost to Hibs that day,” Locke says of the earlier match. “But I got the feeling before that game that that wouldn’t happen, and that’s what proved to be the case.
“The boys went out and performed that day. They did that the last two, three months of the season, and that was simply because they were all then ready to play first-team football. And it’s great to see them doing so well now.
“The result against Kilmarnock was six, seven months’ hard work on the training pitch coming to fruition. And I thought it was really pleasing to see.
“By that time, the young lads were physically stronger through all the work they’d done with Dave Sykes, the sports scientist at Hearts. They did all the right things that day, and that was the most pleasing thing, because it looked like they had arrived as first-team players.”
While Sykes was responsible for the players’ physical conditioning, Locke also credits his assistant manager, Billy Brown, with an extremely significant role in those players’ improvement over the season.
His decision to appoint Brown was made in the face of some internal opposition, and the older man continued to be the subject of a whispering campaign for much of the season. The last thing Hearts needed at a time of depleted resources was to be further weakened by political infighting, but Locke has no regrets about the appointment of a man he regards as a source of vital support.
“He was huge,” he says of Brown. “He had a huge influence at Hearts and probably didn’t get the credit that he deserved. The fact that he came in and worked for free as well speaks volumes for him. But he was certainly there for me in the darkest times. There were a couple of results that weren’t the best, but we learned from them and I felt that we finished the season as the form team. And we certainly left all the younger players there as better players than what they started.
“It was a period in my early management career from which I learned a lot. I felt everything that I faced has certainly made me a better manager.”
And the key to becoming a better manager and getting the best out of your players? For Locke, it’s summed up in four words: don’t worry, be happy.
“I want the players to come in and enjoy it. Enjoy training. It’s a fantastic job to be doing. You take a few knocks along the way in terms of injury and the other knocks that football gives you, but it’s a sport that I’ve always loved and I just love being involved in football every day.
“There’s no point worrying about anything. What will be will be. I know for a fact that, if I can get results here, I’ll put myself into contention to get the job.
“I don’t like setting too many targets. We’ve just got to try and win the next game.
“I’ve never been one for looking back, and I’ve got the manager’s job here at Kilmarnock and I aim to try and do as well here as I felt I did at Hearts. Obviously the circumstances are completely different, and, hopefully, now I can get a chance to manage a football club properly.”
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