Stirling boss Dave Mackay heads into his first full season in charge of the Binos with the knowledge and experience of a successful campaign last season after he took over the reins at Forthbank from Stuart McLaren.
Mackay was appointed manager of the, then struggling, League Two side in on the 9th of November, 2016.
“I knew the job was up for grabs – at that time, I was just finishing up playing and hadn’t really thought about it but then I saw James Fowler was supposedly getting the job, before it fell through and he went to St Mirren, so, at that time, I spoke to a few people to see if they thought it’d be a good idea and whether to apply for it. I felt it was a good opportunity for me.”
The job, however, did come sooner than Mackay expected it to when he considered going into the managerial merry-go-round.
“I was still working at St Johnstone with their Under-20’s and the club were going to give me a role in some coaching capacity as well, so, it was a little bit of a risk to give up a secure job. Having worked with the Under-20’s, I knew it was what I wanted to do [management] – I wanted to be my own man and I felt joining Stirling was a great way for me to continue learning my trade. I think it is a great way to learn – you are obviously going to make mistakes, I am a rookie in terms of management… I ain’t going to get everything right, however, you might be able to get away with it a little bit more at a less high profile club, than in the top division, for example. I think it is a great learning curve for me, I am learning all the time and to be honest, having spoke to managers that have managed full-time and part-time clubs, they will all tell you that part-time is a tougher job: you have to do an awful lot of work, on your own, but I love that challenge; I am learning about all the different leagues all the time and with that, I think next year could be a big year for us.”
After being brought in, Mackay’s first challenge was to save the Binos from being in a relegation battle. In the end, it was nearly the play-offs at the right end of the table that occurred come the end of the season.
“I had seen the club on 4 or 5 occasions before I took the job and I knew that there was obviously problems there – whether it was playing staff or off-field issues. I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think I could get them out of the situation they were in, but, I also knew that in the long-term, the squad needed an overhaul. I had to do it a little sooner than I would have liked to because January is a difficult time to get the players in that you would really like and it is sometimes having to go for an option that provides a quick fix. I feel I needed to bring in players that I knew and I could trust – but all my signings didn’t work. Out of the 9 or 10 that I did sign though, even if we got 50% of those that I brought in to work, it helped us transform our season and we almost made the promotion play-offs. Some signings didn’t work – whether that was due to being unlucky with injuries or they just didn’t reach the standards I had hoped for, but, the remit was to avod relegation, get through to the end of the season and re-evaluate the squad then. Thankfully for us, we did manage to climb away from the relegation spot, which was imperative for the club. Now we have a bit of a blank canvas – I have re-signed the players that I feel are good enough to take us forward while also bringing in fresh faces to build on that, also.”
One of the biggest talking points in Scotland last year was the unearthing of striker, Dylan Nguene-Bikey.
“I got word from an agent about having a look at a couple of players. That evening we had an Under-20’s game and while I couldn’t attend, I asked someone who’s opinion I trust fully to attend on my behalf and at the end of the game he told me I needed to look at the striker. We got Dylan in to training and we had a practise match – he absolutely tore the team apart! In the end, it was an easy decision. You could see the attributes he had,” explains Mackay, “he had pace, and I knew that would trouble the opposition at this level and that is how it worked out for the games that he was here. Last year, we maybe went down the route too much of bringing in loan players; sometimes it is really difficult for them to settle in and gel. This year, I feel it is important we have a base of players that are signed to us. Perhaps, if we can add a couple of real quality loan signings, then we will look to do that. It is important that clubs look to us because they know we can develop these players – that is the point of these loan deals or even the short-term deals. It is all about them and ourselves to progress, so, I feel it is important that they come in to a club that wants to try play football the right way; a club that is secure and one which will look after them while they’re here.”
Northern Irish internationalist Andy Little also joined Stirling and, despite only making 5 substitute appearances last season, has signed a new deal to keep him at Forthbank for the forthcoming season.
“The injury Andy picked up in training looked innocuous at the time and I never thought it would result the way it would. Nobody seemed concerned, initially, as we all just thought he was lying on the ground wanting a free-kick, but, within a few seconds you realised due to the players’ reactions, that something wasn’t right. There was no movement from him whatsoever, he must’ve been out cold for at least 4 minutes. We were then sitting waiting on an ambulance for almost an hour; thankfully the doctor and physio were there – it isn’t often the doctor would be at training, so, thankfully he was there to take care of the situation. More importantly, thankfully for Andy he won’t have any long-lasting injuries. He is due a bit of luck and hopefully, if we can get him fit next year, then I am sure he would score a barrowload of goals. Andy coming in probably did give us a bit of lift. Obviously, Andy and ourselves would rather he played more games for us but he was struggling with a few niggling injuries and then when he got up to full fitness and was ready, he got that horrendous head injury, so, we will take our time with him this pre-season. It is important he gets up to 100% fitness, before we try push him in. There is no point in him breaking down again; we need to get him right because if we do, we will reap the benefits.”
With the signing of Peter MacDonald as well, the Stirling strikeforce for next season is looking menacing already.
“Peter is someone I have known for a long time – both playing against him, and beside him, when he was at St Johnstone. He has also been very unlucky throughout his career with injuries. I think the last couple of years have probably been his best run of games throughout his whole career. We’ve also got Blair Henderson and Ross Kavanagh so there is plenty options and plenty goals, there. I am delighted to go with that front four next year. I am content with the work we have done up until now. I know the areas we need to strengthen – we are working on a couple of players for a couple of areas. I think we only need three more players in and that will be us done. We will have a squad of around 18 this year – we need to make sure there is a pathway for our own kids to progress towards the first-team. Last year, they didn’t really have that opportunity due to the fact that we had a senior squad of around 24 players, which was far too many, so, it is important we give them that chance; to be fair, a couple of the young boys are a part of that 18 for this season already. We have got a lot of good youngsters coming through and we need to make sure there is an opportunity for them to try break into the first-team.”
Mackay feels it was crucial that he kept the majority of his squad together heading into this season, after building momentum since he took charge.
“We don’t want to be ripping up our squad – a few clubs will be doing so this summer and it is always difficult as your signings can either be a hit or a miss, but, I find it important that I go with guys that I know what they can do and their capabilities. Having worked with them for the best part of 7 months, then I am confident that these guys can push us forward or else I wouldn’t have kept them. I am delighted I have got everybody I wanted to keep from last year signed up. Hopefully within the next week to 10 days, we will have another couple in too.”
Experienced goalkeeper Chris Smith left the club and rejoined Stenhouemuir this summer. It wasn’t a case of not being wanted by the Stirling gaffer, however.
“To let Chris go, was the most difficult decision I had to make, by a distance. He was probably our best and most consistent player last year. However, we have a young goalkeeper – Cammy Binnie – signed up and he needs to be playing first-team football. We risked losing Cammy – there was a lot of interest in him from higher levels. There are Premiership and Championship clubs looking at him and if we were to let him go, I have no doubts he would walk straight into their team,” insists Mackay. “Cammy can be a real asset for the club. He is only going to get better, as well. There wasn’t a lot between him and Chris Smith last year, but, with the potential Cammy has got, he could become a real asset for a team like us.”
This is Mackay’s first pre-season as a permanent part-time manager, but that couldn’t begin until he returned from his Pro Licence duties in Poland.
“We will have a three week programme – we started on the 24th of June. If I wasn’t in Poland, we might have started a few days earlier. We have plenty of time to build up for the BetFred Cup. Also, 99% of clubs use this competition as part of their pre-season. We have got three friendlies arranged before then, we will possibly try squeeze another one in too. You have to try strike a balance – although, that is difficult. When you are in part-time football, you have got to appreciate that these guys are working during the day, as well. It is a huge commitment for them to get to training twice a week as it is: I know they get paid for it but it does take a lot out of them so to even consider doing three nights a week and a weekend, for example, could work at some clubs but at others it won’t. We will set up a training schedule that I find is most beneficial for us and the players. These days, when players go off for their summer breaks, they come back in much better condition than ever before. They’ll all be weighed and tested the first day they come back and if they aren’t at the standard that I think they should be at, then those guys will be getting worked even harder. For all of them, nobody will be guaranteed a game next season; it’ll be the ones who come in fittest, sharpest and hit the ground running that’ll get the jersey’s first so it is up to all of the players to look after their fitness.”
Stirling have been drawn into Group A of the BetFred Cup alongside higher league opposition in Falkirk, Inverness, Brechin and Forfar.
“We are facing three Championship clubs – it could’ve been a little bit easier for us! However, we haven’t got a Premiership team so I suppose there is a little bit of balance overall. I am happy with the group overall though and the way the fixtures have came out. It is a tough draw but one we are looking forward to. The club got off to a good start last season, by beating Falkirk at home in the BetFred Cup and I think expectations maybe went slightly through the roof at that point. We hope to get another good start this year to get us up and running as soon as possible. You are going to get shock results to begin with as teams aren’t up to full fitness and not match ready. If we were to play those groups a couple of months into the season, 99% of the time the Premiership team would ease through, but that won’t be a case at the beginning of the season and that can only be a good thing for the smaller clubs. We are taking this cup seriously – like I think all clubs should do. We will try get off to a flyer and do the best we can.”
League Two is arguably the most open league in the SPFL structure this season.
“I think it’ll be a pretty open league, this year, to be honest. I think Stenhousemuir have made good signings and will be up there; Peterhead should be up there with the finances they’ve got… you have also got Montrose who have kept the majority of their squad from last season and also added a couple too, but, it is just like the rest of them, you can have a really good organised team, such as Edinburgh City, and a few quality additions can have you up there, so, it is a very, very, tough one to call. I am sure all teams will fancy their chances to be challenging for a play-off spot, at least. I think you have got to aim as high as you can. I think the minimum for us has to be play-offs; if we didn’t reach at least fourth, I would see that as a failure, at least from myself, personally. I think last year was such a rollercoaster season for us – we had a great finish but for two thirds of the season, we were extremely poor. To almost make the play-offs, on the back of that, then there is no reason why we shouldn’t be aiming to go one better at least, this year.”
The long-term aim of Mackay isn’t just for one promotion however. On the prospect of getting back to the Championship under his tenure, he said:
“Absolutely! It might not be instantaneous, but, if you look at teams who have done it in the past, such as Alloa Athletic, who got two promotions on the bounce and even East Fife who nearly got into the promotion play-offs in League One last season, too. I have seen a lot of League One and I genuinely don’t think there is much between League One and League Two, to be honest,” before concluding, “I don’t see any reason why in the next 2, 3, 4 years why we can’t be back as a Championship club.”