Raith Rovers boss Gary Locke keen to break his Hearts

Gary Locke's Raith Rovers host Hearts at a sold-out Stark's Park today.  Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
Gary Locke's Raith Rovers host Hearts at a sold-out Stark's Park today. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
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Gary Locke understands what it is like to be a young, untried manager tasked with protecting and delivering the hopes and dreams of half a city. So when the former Hearts boss lines up against Ian Cathro at Stark’s Park this afternoon, as his Raith Rovers side take on his boyhood heroes in the Scottish Cup fourth round, he will empathise with the man who stirred up such attention when he took on the Tynecastle role last month.

“I was a wee bit older when I got the opportunity [at Hearts] but you do all your badges and, it doesn’t matter what age you are, the reason you do them is because they want to be your own man,” said Locke. “He is young and he has a lot of different ideas from other people but he has to be given a chance. Time will tell but at the end of the day we are all in the same position, as a manager you have to deliver results and everyone knows that. We will see how things pan out. The good thing is he has already been able to bring in his own players. During the January window they have already been really active and it will be interesting to see [how things unfold]. I wish him well in the job, but obviously after Sunday.”

While Cathro has had to contend with a storm of controversy and intense scrutiny, it was nothing compared to the set of circumstances that consumed Locke.

“I don’t think there will be another manager in my lifetime that will have the kind of problems I faced at Hearts and that is a good thing because it is a huge club and it is great to see it getting back on its feet.

“I managed them through a really difficult period in the club’s history but we came out the other side and I can only hope that people look at me and think ‘he played a part in getting the youngsters in the team and helping them develop and helping the club survive’, which I feel I did. There will always be some who think you never did a decent job but i felt I did all right, especially in the circumstances. I was doing the job with both hands tied behind my back, unable to sign anybody, and dealing with all the off-the-field changes, and then being forced to play players who weren’t ready to play. But hopefully by the end of it people could see the hard work we put in and me and Billy [Brown, his assistant] will always look at the period and feel we played our part in getting the club to where it is now.”

Elevated to the management top spot as the club teetered on the brink of extinction, the former player, captain and lifelong fan was manager at Gorgie when administration and off-field woes denied him the chance to wheel and deal, and fears for the club’s ongoing existence swarmed around the club like dementors. A points deduction and a transfer embargo had them relegated before the campaign even began but he still made the most of the situation and the young, raw kids at his disposal and had it not been for the points deduction imposed before the season even got under way, he would have finished above city rivals Hibs and might have safeguarded Hearts’ top-flight status. Despite that, when new owner Ann Budge came in and appointed director of football Craig Levein, the decision was to part company with Locke.

It stung, it definitely did, but with a coaching job offer at Kilmarnock eventually morphing into the manager’s role, and then a brief spell out the game followed by a return to the dugout at Championship Raith Rovers in the summer, Locke says he has moved on. The ability to bounce back has been tested and he admits that his already thick skin has toughened. Both are vital in today’s game, he says. He remains a Hearts fan and understands why head to heads with the club cast him into the spotlight, but his focus is firmly on ousting the team he (in the role of assistant manager) helped guide to that famous 5-1 Scottish Cup final victory over Hibs in 2012.

“Listen, of course I was hurting because maybe I didn’t see it happening but then again, it didn’t really surprise me either, because the way football is these days, it is a great game to be involved in but it can be horrendous as well,” said Locke. “There isn’t any loyalty in the game and you can’t be sentimental. Hearts are going to be here long after I’m away and they don’t owe me anything. They opted to go a different way and you have just got to hold your hands up and accept that and they have done well. They are back in the top flight, which is great for Scottish football, and we know how difficult it will be on Sunday. I don’t know that many of the players because they have signed so many foreign players again, but we will see how it goes.”

In amongst those new recruits, there are a sprinkling of young lads kicking about the club, having proved themselves assets. Players like Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker, Jack Hamilton and Sam Nicholson, were all thrown in at the deep end during that tumultuous time.

“It was a difficult learning curve for me,” said Locke. “But it made me a stronger person. I think it was the same for some of the young boys. Seeing some of the young lads who came in back then and did struggle, to see them going on and having decent careers that’s something that is pleasing for myself and Billy. We felt we put a lot of hard work in with them and they certainly became men within a short space of time. It is great to see them doing well.”

As a manager and as a man, Hearts have played an integral role in Locke’s development and he will be happy if he can use them to do the same with his Raith Rovers charges. The sell-out crowd and the televised nature of the game elevates it above the week-to-week fare, while the money raised from such a big-name tie offers a club like Raith some much-appreciated financial respite, albeit no enhanced budget for the manager. It also affords his players an occasion to rise to.

He sees promise in his Kirkcaldy squad and although three defeats in recent weeks and nine games without a win have set their play-off hopes back a bit, he says a good result this afternoon could give them a boost.

“The cup game is great, it is a wee break for us, we are the underdogs and if we compete well on the day and Hearts don’t then we have a really good chance. It is a game that we are all looking forward to. It is a test of character.

“I don’t think we have played that badly, I just think we need to be a bit braver and hopefully we can get a result that gets us going.”