Ian Murray may just be starting his managerial career, but his sights are aimed high, much like a certain former incumbent of St Mirren’s hot seat
At the club where Sir Alex Ferguson won his first managerial honour at the age of just 35, it is perhaps only appropriate to find a young man who has his sights firmly fixed on reaching the very top of the profession.
It takes less than an hour in the company of Ian Murray in his compact office at St Mirren’s training ground in Ralston to find yourself being persuaded you may just be talking to the next big thing in Scottish football management.
As he begins his first full-time job as a gaffer, following a quietly impressive two-and-a-half year stint in charge of Dumbarton, the former Hibs captain makes no such bold claim on his own behalf.
But there is a general sense of self-certainty in Murray’s words which leave you in little doubt he is now on a career path he regards as having the broadest of horizons.
“I would never say I’m the best coach in the world because I’m just starting out and still learning that side of things,” says the 34-year-old. “But I’ve always felt I could manage footballers. After 15 years in dressing rooms, I know what makes them tick and I think I know how to handle them and get the best out of them.
“I think I always knew as a player, from very early on, that I wanted to be a manager one day, even if it was subconsciously.
“I’d love to manage at the very top. That’s what everyone aspires to. We all have ambitions to go as high as we can. As a player, it’s a case of getting as high as you can as quick as you can.
“As a manager, it’s a wee bit different. You know it’s going to take time. You know how fragile it can be. If you don’t do well in the first six months in a job, you could be out the door.
“So it’s quite dangerous to try and predict where you are going to be. I’m absolutely delighted to be at St Mirren at this stage, regardless of it being in the Championship.
“It’s a great club to step up to from where I was. From the outside, it looked a good fit for me in terms of the young guys in the squad and as a team which needed a wee bit of freshness.
“I know the Championship fairly well but it’s still a huge step up for myself and my assistant Mark Spalding. I wouldn’t say it’s somewhere we didn’t expect to be at this time but it’s certainly not a timescale we had envisaged when we first went to Dumbarton.
“It feels like the right job at the right time. If we are flying high this time next year and have taken the club back into the Premiership, who knows where we will be? Someone else might want us.
“Equally, if we are second bottom of the table by Christmas, we might not be here because the club might feel they need a change. That’s how it works.”
Relegation from the Premiership last season created the opportunity Murray is now relishing at the Paisley club. While under no illusions as to how difficult it will be to bounce back to the top flight at the first attempt, he is also defiant in the face of the bookmakers’ odds which place Saints as long as 7-1 third favourites for the Championship title behind Rangers and Hibs.
“It’s going to be tough for us,” he admits. “We are probably getting ourselves branded in the same category as Falkirk, Queen of the South and Raith Rovers at the moment.
“But I would say we are ahead of them in terms of our playing staff having played at a higher level last season. I’m not saying we are a better team, but we should have higher quality at this stage.
“I also don’t believe we are as far behind Hibs and Rangers as most people perceive – certainly not as far behind Rangers as many people think.
“I feel we are absolutely in the mix to win the league. Hibs are undoubtedly the favourites in my mind because their manager has been in place longer than myself or Mark Warburton at Rangers. Alan Stubbs knows his players better and has them playing the way he wants.
“So they go into this season with an expectancy to win the league. It feels as if the pressure is off us completely, so we can try and go about our business quietly, pick up as many points as we can early doors and then see where we are come Christmas time.
“If we are in a positive position then, we can go and bolster our squad and try to push on again.”
Murray is in the process of re-shaping an increasingly youthful first-team squad at St Mirren. Ten players left the club in the wake of relegation and Murray has so far secured three new recruits in midfielders Scott Agnew and Stuart Carswell from Dumbarton and Motherwell respectively and striker Paul McMullan on loan from Celtic.
“The changeover was difficult because of the timing,” he adds. “The players were on holiday when I was appointed and I had to spend time away as well to do my Uefa Pro licence coaching course.
“We did lose a lot of players at the end of last season but that’s not always a bad thing. It’s a transition period for the club, with a significant salary drop for players because of the drop into the Championship and with a new management team as well.
“The board have been great. They understand the transition taking place at the club. It’s also a transition for myself, coming from part-time to full-time management.
“But I understand the expectations are higher on me here than they were at Dumbarton. The players also know that the club wants to be back in the top flight as soon as possible.
“As a club, they seem to have planned very well and that reflects where we are budget-wise at the moment. The board are realistic in their ambition, but that doesn’t mean they are not hoping we go on to do better than people expect us to this season.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been surprised by the size of the club, but it’s been great to start understanding the heritage it has. Season-ticket sales are actually up on last season and I can already sense the goodwill from the support.
“There is also a sense among the team that we owe the fans something. We want to try and make St Mirren Park a place they can come to every second week and enjoy themselves, not somewhere they walk away from grumbling and moaning.
“It’s changed from Dumbarton. There, it was just about getting the points needed to stay in the division and we didn’t care how we got them.
“It’s slightly different here because we have a duty to nurture the young players, get them enjoying their football and make them tactically aware.
“The pathway from the youth system to the first team is great here. I know Dundee United do especially well on that front, while Aberdeen do great as well.
“But I think if you are looking for a club which consistently produces young players who get into the first team, you look no further than St Mirren.
“It might have actually been a factor in relegation, with so many of them being blooded at the same time, but it gives us a great opportunity in the Championship.
“Lads like Stevie Mallan, Jason Naismith, Sean Kelly and Jack Baird have all played in the Premiership now, so the drop down in division should help them.
“They have to adapt their mentality a little. Last season, they experienced the doom and gloom of being relegated. This year, the pressure to win games is geared towards trying to win promotion.
“It’s a completely different ball game for them, but from what I’ve seen of them so far, they are more than capable.
“I would never say we’ll try to get them playing football the way it should be played, because there is nothing set in stone there. You do what works for you.
“There will be times in games when we need to go back to front because we are desperate for a goal. But we want to try and play good football whenever we can, getting it down and moving the opposition about.
“It doesn’t always work like that in the Championship, though.”
The Paisley public will get their first glimpse of Murray’s Saints in this afternoon’s friendly with Bradford City as they reclaim St Mirren Park from early-season tenants Celtic.
A first competitive outing against Berwick Rangers in the Petrofac Training Cup comes next Saturday, but the first red-letter date on Murray’s diary this season is the Friday-night Championship opener against Rangers at Ibrox on 7 August.
He already has an insight on what to expect from his former club as they embark on a new direction of their own under former Brentford boss Warburton.
“Mark gave one of the lectures when I was on one of the SFA coaching courses last year,” says Murray.
“He was very good, really interesting to listen to. He did things at Brentford a different way from most clubs. It was all by numbers and data. It’s not going to work at every club, but it certainly worked at Brentford because they were flying under him at the time.
“We also heard from Gregor Townsend, the Glasgow Warriors coach, on that course. He’s from a different sport with a different mentality, but a lot of the coaching principles are the same. Gregor was excellent too and I picked up a few things from him.”
Murray’s total immersion in his development as a manager can come with a personal cost. His full-time status at St Mirren has already impacted on the time he spends with his two young sons Lewis (five) and Owen (18 months).
“I haven’t seen my eldest boy for two days,” he reveals. “I was down at Berwick watching their game against Hibs and when I got back he was in bed. I was then up at 6am to head to training and he was still in bed. Then we had a game ourselves at night and he was in bed again when I got home.
“We are in here very early as a coaching staff and we leave very late. But we don’t moan about it because it’s the life we have chosen and we enjoy it.”
Unlike his old man, young Lewis is not going to grow up as a dyed-in-the-wool Hibee.
“He is starting to show an interest in football now,” smiles Murray. “I’m just waiting for a St Mirren kit I’ve ordered for him and he wants to join the Panda Club here too.
“It’s funny to see. He’s been a Dumbarton fan for the last two years, now he’s going to support St Mirren. His head is going to be pickled in a few years.
“It’s strange as a manager, your natural allegiances also go out the window right away. You immediately become a supporter of the club you are managing, even if you’ve never seen them play before in your life.”
If Murray can eclipse Rangers and Hibs to top the pile in the Championship next May, he will do so at the same age as the aforementioned Fergie was when he guided Saints to the old First Division crown back in 1977.
But Murray takes his inspiration from the most recent addition to the roll call of Scottish managers making a big impression south of the border.
“It’s fantastic what Alex Neil has done to get into the English Premier League with Norwich after the brilliant job he did at Hamilton,” he says.
“Over the last ten years, we’ve had stacks of Scottish managers in the English top flight. I wouldn’t put it down to luck, because there have been too many for that to be the case.
“It’s perhaps just the way we go about our business. I wouldn’t say we are overly fiery but our determination to succeed as managers is maybe a wee bit higher.
“Once you get a taste of management, you know whether it’s for you or not. Some guys can’t be bothered with it when they stop playing, others love it.
“The size of the club really doesn’t come into it. You need to work hard or you will be found out early doors.
“I’m the same as I was as a player – I want to get to the top. That could happen quicker as a manager or it might take longer.”