Cowdenbeath have managed to secure the signature of Gary Locke, to remain in charge at Central Park for this forthcoming season. The former Hearts, Kilmarnock and Raith boss, however, is hoping for cheerier times after a tough few seasons for the Fife club.
After leaving his role as Raith manager in February, it was only 4 weeks later before he got appointed the new Cowdenbeath manager, initially on a 10-week deal.
“It is the same for everybody – when you are out the game for any period of time, you want to get back in as soon as possible so people don’t forget about you. I was delighted when Donald Findlay [QC – Cowdenbeath chairman] phoned me up and asked if I wanted to have a chat. It probably wasn’t the level I was looking to get back into – due to having always been full-time throughout my career – but I saw it as a big challenge. I knew that if I was to keep Cowdenbeath up and stay in this league, it was going to be a big task, but, it was something I embraced and I was looking forward to the challenge and that is why I took it.”
After impressing in his interview and being offered the job, Locke knew how hard a task it was going to be.
“Maybe a downfall of mine in the past, at my previous clubs, is that I am an honest, hard-working, guy; but I won’t change, that is how I work. If I feel someone isn’t playing well, I will tell them. If I think someone is playing well, I will also tell them. They [the directors] were in the same situation as me, they were under no illusions. They knew the mess they were in; without being disrespectful to any of the other managers who had been there before me, but the cluh has been in freefall for the last few seasons. It was just a case of us [Gary and his Assistant’s, Billy Brown and Neil Irvine] going in there and galvanising the whole club – everybody was on a bit of a downer, they hadn’t been winning games and you can sometimes get into a bit of a rut, so it was important we tried to get them out of that and luckily we did.”
Locke was positive about his chances of helping Cowden avoid the drop, however, when he saw the squad available to him.
“I had worked with 2 or 3 of the players previously at Hearts; Fraser Mullen, Dale Carrick and I knew a lot about Kris Renton too as he had played a lot for my local junior team, Bonnyrigg Rose. I also had Jamie Sneddon at Hearts as well, so, when we looked at the squad, I certainly felt that they were underachieving. I wouldn’t have taken the job if I felt it was a lost cause. Confidence was clearly low when we went in and while you can’t just hand players confidence, we had to get them quickly back in to a winning way as that is how you can gain wee bits of confidence. When you take over a team who hadn’t won that year, you know the mood in the dressing room is going to be low. When that isn’t the case, you try things that you wouldn’t normally try: a harder pass, for example, as when you go out on to the pitch, you are raring to go, but, when you are low on confidence, it is the opposite, so we [Gary, Billy Brown and Neil Irvine] just tried to make them believe in themselves again. You may change one or two things behind-the-scenes, but in the main, you just try and get them organised and hard to beat because we were losing to many games but once we did that, the confidence came back and went on a good run up until the end of the season.”
One of the first changes Locke made was to the playing squad, by bringing in David Syme on loan from previous club, Raith Rovers.
“Sometimes bringing in a player doesn’t always work – when I have been in my previous roles, I have taken players to the club that I have been at that I know well but it doesn’t always work out. I just felt that, perhaps, we needed to freshen things up. David [Syme] is quite a big character for such a young lad. Also, for me, he has something to prove – he has had a few knocks early on in his career: he done great for me at Killie and played 20 or 30 games in the Premiership; then he made a move to Partick, but he didn’t quite get his opportunity there and then at Raith, he came in and was on the bench a few times but didn’t get into the team, so, for me, I thought he had something to prove. I thought he came in and did really well: he is the type of player that I would like to bring in to Cowdenbeath – someone who is young and hungry and wanting to try get back up to that level of the Premiership or Championship.”
Heading into the play-off final against East Kilbride, it was one of the toughest tests Locke has had in management, to date.
“I wouldn’t say it was the biggest challenge I’ve faced [in football management] as I was in charge at Hearts during their Administration period, and that was a different type of job altogether, but, in terms of what these two matches meant to Cowdenbeath, it was a huge game for us. The chairman and directors told me that, if we had been beaten, while there still would have been a side, it could’ve been similar to how Gretna are now! I think getting relegated would have just been financially too much for the club, so, I knew the there was pressure on us but, we had done our homework – we had East Kilbride watched 3 or 4 times before the season finished, just in case the worst case scenario did happen. I certainly felt, going into those matches, that unlike most teams who go in having lost matches all season, we had created a bit of momentum and had only lost 3 matches in 13. Over the two games, I felt that we deserved to win – especially the second leg. In this first half, we should’ve had the game dead and buried but missed a few chances,” explained Locke, who added, “To be honest, in the two weeks leading up to that game, we had been practising penalties as we knew it might’ve came down to penalties. We knew as well, that we hadn’t scored many! Psychologically, we had to get into the players heads that they are all more than capable of scoring a penalty kick – the best players in the world can miss one. However, that was the most frustrating thing from my point of view – obviously after the season had ended – that, if we had scored even 2 or 3 of the 6 penalties we had missed, we would never have been in that position so, while I was delighted the players stepped up and took responsibility, and I knew they would be able to score a penalty if called upon, it is fair to say that everyone associated with the club at the time wouldn’t have fancied us to win at the time due to our record.”
Despite having 14 players already signed up, when this interview was conducted, Locke has admitted he is finding it tough to attract players to Cowdenbeath for the campaign ahead.
“We have lost a few players – Kris Renton has left: I felt he had a good season, especially in the time I was there. He wants to test himself at the highest possible level he can, like any player, and for me, he has still got a lot of good years ahead of him. It’ll be hard to replace someone like that – but we will try our best. The nucleus of the team have re-signed, which is pleasing. If we can just add one or two players, it’d be great but I am certainly finding that difficult at the minute. If we can get a wee bit more quality in to the team, then hopefully we can have a better season than the one we have just had. Of course, we have also lost Jamie Sneddon too. I had Jamie at Hearts and myself and the goalkeeping coach there at the time, Alan Combe, were really, really, surprised that Hearts let him go. We felt he could become a really good player, but, like a lot of youngsters, he has had to take a step back. For me, though – if a full-time club came in for any of our players, I would never want to stand in their way. The chairman is the same – he has been involved in football for a very long time and for us, to see Jamie moving from League 2, back to the Premiership and joining a team who really are on the up at the moment, then it would’ve been wrong for me to deny him that opportunity. We are delighted for Jamie, we know how hard he has worked. The club has made a small bit of money out of it, so we wish him well and I personally hope he can go and make a name for himself as a top class goalkeeper as I certainly feel he has the potential. As I have said, it is just a shame we cannot attract the type of experienced players we would like because the reality is, they wouldn’t be attracted to come to Cowdenbeath due to the money that we offer. It’ll be a case of trying to wheel and deal in the loan market. It worked well for us last year, getting in guys like Dale Carrick. That is the type of player we are looking at. We are now just waiting on the Premiership clubs going back before we can attempt to get another two or three players in. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the £200 or £300 a week to get loan players in, so, we are hopeful one or two of the bigger clubs can help us out. It is a young squad and I would like to add a bit of experience to it but at the moment, we just don’t have the finances to bring in the type of experienced player that I would like.”
Locke has ambitions of getting back into full-time management, but is fully committed to Cowdenbeath, as the season draws closer.
“[Going part-time] has been difficult – there have been one or two things that have surprised me and one or two things I expected. I am well aware that boys have jobs and that is their prime focus compared to playing football, which I am certainly not used to, but, I have an agreement in place with the chairman that I will continue in the job at the moment and if something full-time did come up, the club have said they wouldn’t stand in my way. They know I want to get back to the top level again, if I can. However, they also know that I have enjoyed my two or three months that I have already been there. It is a great club – a club in which I saw what it meant to a lot of people once we had beaten East Kilbride. At the moment, I am over the moon to be Cowdenbeath manager. If circumstances were to change, then everyone knows the situation, but, as long as I am there, I will do the job to the best of my ability and hopefully improve on what happened last year.”
One person who Locke has managed to secure is the services of his Assistant Manager, Billy Brown.
“I have a great relationship with Billy. Darren Jackson is a big part in what I have tried to achieve in football as well – who was a great Assistant Manager to me at Raith – but, again, unfortunately, due to finances, I have been unable to bring Darren on board. However, he has also been a great help behind-the-scenes, helping us with the training free of charge. He comes in and tries to help as much as he can, and Billy is the same. He is working for very little. He is a huge help, though – for what he has achieved in the game, it is a great coup for Cowdenbeath to get someone of his calibre to come in and help.”
With pre-season just around the corner, it won’t be long until the competitive action starts.
“The days of running up hills and sand dunes are long gone. If you look at it closely, the boys have only really had three or four weeks off. They aren’t going to come back in horrendous condition; we are playing a few games pretty early this year, so, the majority of pre-season will be with the ball and then we will be straight into games as that is where they will get the majority of their fitness. [In regards to the BetFred Cup] I will be using those games as pre-season matches. While we want to do well in the cup – it’d be great to get a couple of wins – but when you are up against the calibre of opposition that we will be facing, you know you are up against it. We will treat those games in the right manner, but our priority is the league as last year just wasn’t good enough. All the games will be difficult – Buckie, for example, got narrowly beaten by East Kilbride over two games, and when we played East Kilbride, there wasn’t much between the teams, so, Buckie will certainly be a hard game for us. When you have three games in a week, you have very little time on the training field with the players. For me, missinng out on match day two isn’t bad. It lets us play a match, then have a couple of sessions together before the next batch of matches. Hopefully, within that time frame, we will be able to bring in another couple of signings, to allow us to work on our shape, set pieces and things like that in time for the Dundee United game. It sometimes isn’t great that you are playing competitive games straight away, as you then need to play certain players for longer than you would like, but, on the other side of the coin, you aren’t playing as many meaningless pre-season games as, sometimes, when you play 3 or 4 pre-season fixtures, it can get a bit monotonous, so, at least these four games mean something and it is a great way, in my opinion, for the lads to get their fitness and prepare ahead of the new season.”
League Two is an open race this season, however, Locke wouldn’t be drawn on any specific targets heading into his first full season in charge of the Blue Brazil.
“I am pretty sure similar things were said last season, but, if you look at the teams who are in the league – such as your Peterhead’s, who spend a bit of money, as well as teams like Montrose who have strengthened this summer – there are a lot of strong sides again this year. It means you have to be at it, every single week. I didn’t think there was anything, even though it was only a short spell, against teams like Forfar and Arbroath, that there was anything between the teams: we beat Arbroath and drew with Forfar, for example, but we finished bottom while those two battled it out to win the league, so, it’ll be the same this year – it’ll be tight and it is whoever puts the most consistent run together that will lift the trophy. For me, it is about improving on what we did last year as that was a disappointment and an underachievement. As a manager, I am ambitious and I would like to think we could put a squad together that is good enough to go and challenge at the top of the table, however, it is all about improving as last season is something nobody at the club wants to be associated with again. There were a lot of nervous people, so, if we at least consolidate this season, it will give us something to build upon.”