St Mirren Assistant Manager, James Fowler, is ready to embrace the challenge of getting the Buddies back into the Premiership after saving the Paisley club, alongside manager Jack Ross, from relegation to League One, last season.
In October of 2016, James Fowler was appointed Assistant Manager of St Mirren. He would be working alongside coach Alan McManus and manager Jack Ross.
“I think when you look at the squad, there was certainly a lot of experience alongside some quality young players, but, I think they didn’t get off to a great start and from then it looked as if the confidence just drained from them. As soon as Jack and myself came in, you could see how low the confidence was. When we looked at it before we took the johs, we knew the squad was good but it isn’t until you get in and work with them that you know how they are mentally. It took us a long time to rectify that – it doesn’t just happen over night, it takes time and it requires positive results. Once we got to January, we felt we needed to make some squad changes to try help the feeling around the club,” explains Fowler, who continues, “There were a lot of players under 21, a few over 30 and one or two who were in the middle bracket, so we felt that there needed to be a better spread of players throughout the changing room; different ages, all with the different types of experiences. We identified this quite early and tried to put it right. In saying that though, we knew the squad we had was more than good enough: I think the mental aspect of it, with the size of the club and having the pressure of not getting another relegation had gotten to them after such a poor start.”
One initiative that Fowler did think of was to use his contacts via Social Networking site, LinkedIn.
“I have a LinkedIn profile and there is a lot of football connections on there – agents, players and so on. It was a time management scenario as well. It was getting to the stage, where, we knew we couldn’t bring other players in until January as they were at other clubs, so, I was just trying to spread the net a little bit and see who was out of contract as well because we felt we had to get one or two in, sooner rather than later. We had spoken to the agents in Scotland and there wasn’t really anyone available at that time, so, it was deemed best if we broadened our search and LinkedIn was the best way, I felt, we could do that quickly.”
Fowler added: “While I still use LinkedIn, it maybe isn’t something I would look to use again in that sense. I think there was a mixed reception from the fans at the time – there was things in the paper about it, querying if we are that desperate but on the other hand people were saying the biggest clubs in the world use LinkedIn so, I would probably sum it up by saying it has given us a lot more connections with agents – UK wide and abroad – but, whether we would use this avenue again…probably not as we have been quite hard on recruitment this summer. We identified our targets quite early. With the business we have done so far, we probably don’t need it to be so public that we are looking for players.”
The great escape did happen after Fowler helped the Buddies avoid relegation and finished up in a respectable 7th place in the Championship table.
“I think a lot of things occurred for us to get to where we finished up; we had done okay in the cup competitions up until January and that helped our confidence turn slightly. It also helped us gain the support of the fans and that helped, especially when bringing in the new guys that we did – we brought in guys that were familiar, such as Stephen McGinn, who the manager had worked with before too. The manager also brough in [Adam] Eckersley who he had worked with previously at Hearts… so, considering we were bottom of the league, the amount of business we had done and the calibre of player we managed to attract is credit to everyone involved and associated with the club, as well as the trust and respect the manager has gained from these players to step down and fight for St Mirren’s survival, We also worked hard on the analysis side of it, as well, to get any little gains that we could. We all feel and agree that it was a team effort – from the players, to the people behind the scenes, to the supporters; it was clear to see everyone was up for the fight. We played well at times but didn’t get the results that they performances deserved but the level of support throughout was incredible and it certainly helped us in gaining momentum. I think the support was typified on the final day away to Hibs at Easter Road – everyone came together and we had a strong finish to the season where I think we only lost two games in our last 14.”
Five players who were out of contract this summer have been released by the side from the Paisley2021 Stadium.
“I think all the players deserve massive credit for the way in which they finished the season. Even guys like Stevie Mallan – he showed what he could do and he deserves his move to Barnsley. He will be difficult to replace in terms of his goals and assists that he brought to the club, but, the form the whole team showed was great and if we had played like that for the full season rather than just from January, we would have been up there in the play-offs at least. It is now about trying to replicate that form fully into this season and to do that we needed to add quality to compliment the players we already have. For example, last season, we probably didn’t have a striker that could run in behind and be a threat, but Gavin Reilly will give us that this season. Having worked with Gavin before, at Queen of the South, I know what kind of player he is, he is quick, and will give us a different type of option up front. There have been a few players going back to their parent clubs too after their loan spell and it was just about trying to replace them within our budget, also.”
The loan players attracted to Paisley last season was again testament to the club and the coaching staff for attracting these players to the Scottish Championship, especially when you are bringing players in from English Premiership clubs, such as Manchester City.
“Billy O’Brien for example was at an age where he had been involved in Champions League squads for Manchester City without actually experiencing that first-team environment. That was something Man City were keen for him to get and we had worked hard to bring in a goalkeeper. He was a player that was put forward to us; we done our homework and we felt he would make us stronger, which he did. It is about building up relationships and networking – with the size of these clubs, and the massive amount of players they have, there will always be players available as they need to go out and develop so, if we can tap into that market and make St Mirren stronger and make the fans proud of the players on the park then that’ll be something we look at, but, we have a decent reputation ourselves for having young players coming through the system. I think the manager showed that last year with Kyle Magennis – he is only 18 and wasn’t involved with the first-team when we arrived, but, he impressed us, he gave us a freshness and in the end played a lot of games which resulted in him going to the Toulon Tournament this summer with Scotland. He played a part in the 1-0 victory over Brazil, so, I think this emphasises why there needs to be a pathway to the first-team squad for the younger ones: you have got to get in the players who are most hungry and then blend that into the group where we have more experience. If you can then add a bit of extra quality, we would certainly look to do that.”
The difficulty with the loan system is, if they impress, there is no guarantee of securing their services for longer.
“First and foremost, we would always look at our own youth squad first before looking down the loan route. If you look at the quality of player the club have produced recently that have been sold on: Stevie Mallan, Jason Naismith, John McGinn, Kenny McLean… there has to be a pathway there for these youngsters because if we bring in too many loan signings, it’ll stifle them. It is imperative there is always a link between the Academy, the Under-20’s and the first-team. At the same time, there is a balancing act as we need to win games. We feel that with the size of the club and the facilities it has – the stadium and the training ground – that we are a Premiership club, so, it is about us doing the job required done to get us to where we feel we belong. We have had discussions with a few [of the loan players from last season]. It is a difficult one for players and clubs – when it is a loan deal, you may only need to pay a percentage of their wage, compared to if you were signing them permanently. So, it is about trying to find the right players at the right price for St Mirren. Harry Davis, for example, is someone who came in from Crewe and done well for us and we would’ve liked to have had him back, but, we have to make sure we balance the books and not overspend.”
St Mirren lost influential playmaker Kyle McAllister to Derby in January. They have now lost Stevie Mallan to Barnsley while unnamed clubs are tracking the progress of winger, Lewis Morgan.
“Losing Stevie Mallan was something in which we always thought would happen. It was close in January, but the deal didn’t get over the line then. Once he got it into his head he wasn’t moving in the winter window, he improved a lot between then and the end of the season. The possibility of getting a move away must have motivated him even more, knowing a strong finish would give him the best possible options. It is difficult to replace him like-for-like. We knew Stevie moving on was likely this summer so we targeted other areas of the squad to strengthen, to share out the responsibility of the goals and assists that he contributed for us last season. Similarly with Lewis Morgan, there is always going to be interest in good players – he is another one who showed great consistency last year. He is two-footed, he has got assists, he can score goals… he has got everything to be a quality player. He is a natural wide player who is quick and there aren’t too many of them about, so, again, of course there will be interest in him, but, with Stevie Mallan already being sold this summer, I think the manager, myself and the club don’t want to lose any more of our best players. I think last season was his first full season in the first-team so we feel his best place for development is still with us, we want to keep him and that is the clubs stance.”
The Buddies have been quick to recruit this summer with a mixture of experience and youth signing on in Paisley.
“Our recruitment was about bringing in hungry players – bringing in Craig Samson, for example. He has been around the block, he has been at the club before and he was keen to come back. He feels he has some unfinished business as he didn’t want to leave the last time. Also, we’ve brought in Gregor Buchanan from Dumbarton; he might have been part-time but he has played a massive part in them staying in the Championship the last two seasons. He was desperate to go full-time and fullfll his potential. Then you have Gavin Reilly who has had a few stop-start seasons since he left Queen of the South. He is also keen to show he is capable enough of playing at this level. We have brought in some players from the lower divisions as well though because if we didn’t and just signed players who are happy to waddle along then it wouldn’t benefit St Mirren. We have brought in the two Ross Stewart’s from Albion Rovers – they are both a good age at 21 or 22. Obviously, one will he working with Jamie Langfield and wearing a different colour of kit and a set of goalie gloves so t shouldn’t be too hard to tell them apart, but, hopefully we can sort out a couple of nicknames to avoid any confusion! On a seriious note, though, the manager is keen to make everyone a better player – even the senior ones – and by bringing in these guys, letting them step up a level and testing themselves, alongside Jordan Kirkpatrick from Alloa too, then they will hopefully get better. With the work we do on the training ground and the analysis we do with the players, we hope to improve them individually and if we can do that, we can then get a better team out on the park, overall. The manager is keen that the players can switch positions within a game and not need constant instructions from the side. It is okay asking a player to fill in a position but they need to be comfortable in doing that – particularly in the more attacking areas and that is where the versatility of guys like Cammy Smith and Jordan Kirkpatrick can come into play. We don’t want to have a large squad – we want a squad size that gives us depth but enough competition for places, also. Within that, you need flexibility so if players can play in numerous positions, it is certainly a benefit.”
With Pre-Season almost a week old now, the focus will be beginning to turn towards the first competitive game of the season.
“We are quite content with the business we have done so far,” says Fowler. “We are always looking to improve if we can and we still have money left, to add other ones, but nobody will come in to make up the numbers. Any additional players we bring in will need to be good enough and will increase the competition we have amongst the squad already assembled. During pre-season, there is always a few ‘character’ days, where you are looking to see who is going to roll up their sleeves, but, to be fair, the players were given a close season programme – we expected them to come back n good condition and that helped us to get the balls out quicker to allow us to work on the tactical side of things as well. With the guys coming in from part-time, we need to make sure that we get them up to speed but also make sure we don;t push them too hard, too soon. The club have been good enough to get us GPS systems for this season, also, which is going to be massive for monitoring the players.”
St Mirren have been drawn into Group H of the BetFred Cup alongside Airdrieonians, Partick Thistle, Livingston and Stranraer.
“We have probably been drawn in to the hardest group. We are up against three other full-time teams, plus a tough away game against Stranraer. Stevie Farrell has went in there and done well. He has recruited well, also, over the summer and it’ll be a hard match going away down there against one of the best run part-time teams, as well. It’ll be a great test for us though, before we head into the league campaign. The players will need to be fully at it; it is slightly disappointing that we have been drawn against someone who will be in our league. You play them quite a lot throughout the season so ideally, we would’ve liked someone else, but, it won’t make a massive difference to us – if anything, it’ll give us an indication of where we are in our preparations for the league campaign. It is also a good gage for us to come up against Partick Thistle so early on: Alan Archilbald has done a great job there, but, it should be a good game and a good test. When you have got midweek games, you probably can’t do much on the training pitch, so to miss out on match day 4, it’ll allow us to have a ‘normal’ week ahead of bringing that schedule in to play for the regular league campaign.”
An open Championship this season will see most teams fancy their chances.
“I think it is probably a bit more like a Championship. When you look at the teams who have been in the league in the last couple of years – Hearts, Hibs, Rangers – then this season probably shows a better balance in terms of budgets. Inverness coming down, they will be strong. Dundee United have got a big budget, Dunfermline and Falkirk as well have done well over the last couple of season and I would also put ourselves in that bracket for at least pushing for promotion. Livingston done really well last year and will be on a high after promotion; Brechin had an unbelievable run too to get up through the play-offs, then you have got Dumbarton and Queen of the South who are always there or thereabouts every season. Recruitment for every team in this league will be key. Early on, I would say there isn’t an early favourite, but, Inverness – if they could keep the majority of their squad that played last season – and Dundee United, have made some good early signings as well but we will also be up there pushing: we know it is going to be difficult but we would like to think we are a decent team, as well. We have got to be at it from the start though. Ultimately, if we came to the end of the season and we have been promoted, it will feel like job done. We have seen how hard it is in the play-offs for the Championship with the amount of games we would need to play and a smaller size of squad, but, like I said earlier, the form and performances we showed over the last 6 months of last season has to be our desire as if we can do that, we will be there or thereabouts. Over the next couple of seasons, we want St Mirren to be back in the Premiership and it is where we feel we belong.”