Ambitious Fife club Kelty Hearts begin the start of a new journey for the ex-junior side when they play their first East of Scotland league match this afternoon against Eyemouth.
Player/Manager Thomas Courts is in his second spell at the club, which he re-joined in 2007.
“I’ve always had a love affair with Kelty Hearts; I can recognise with the people as I am a local lad from Lochgelly, I love the community spirit and I have always been slightly frustrated in my time here, even as a player, as I have always known the potential which the club has. I have always felt as if we could have achieved more but for whatever reason, there was always something holding us back. When I got the manager’s job at 32-years-old, it was a massive undertaking as the club hadn’t won a match in 20 attempts – we were in complete disarray, we were spiralling out the league. First and foremost, I was there to just help and work with the players and essentially get us through to the end of the season and preserve our Superleague status.”
“I think before we won our first Superleague title, we underperformed,” explains Courts. “I had probably been a frustrated manager since 18 or 19 years old. I’ve always captained teams – I have always thought of things from a managers point of view. When I got the job, it felt like the right time for me. I felt, personally, it was the right appointment. Those first 6 or 7 months were extremely testing, if I am being honest. The players weren’t in a good place – the Superleague is a ruthless league and because the club hadn’t won in so many games, we were low on confidence: thankfully, for me, I was someone who had always performed well for the club, I had shown high levels of professionalism towards the club, I was well-respected within the dressing room and it wasn’t the greatest Kelty Hearts side of all time, and the league table would tell you that, but, the lads gave me sheer endeavour and thankfully we stayed up, through the play-off system. Those 6 or 7 months, however, gave me a good indication of what was required at the club; the demands and expectations I would like to place upon my players and what identifying the players I felt would b capable of undertaking those expectations and taking the club to a point where it can put itself on a platform to be challenging for silverware.”
An incredible upturn in fortune saw Courts lead his side to victory in the following season’s Superleague.
“I am not saying the net season I expected the win the Superleague, but what I did expect was to sign a player who, every single Saturday, would go out there and represent Kelty Hearts in a manner that I found befitting of all the support and resources that we get from the club, and I had hoped that would be enough to make the club proud at the end of that season. As it so happens, we got off to a phenomenal start, we maintained that and we were in the mix; what that did is it gave us something to fight for and once we got past that post-Christmas period, and we were still top of the league, with a lot of togetherness; a lot of quality; a lot of aspiration and a lot of drive and expectation from me, we then managed to get ourselves onto the home straight and see the job through.”
“What I believe, is that results are a by-product of everything ese you do,” continues the 36-year-old. “In terms of your preparation, your message, your behaviour; professionalism; conduct – I think all the encompasses high performance. In my mind, if you do all of these things, you go into a Saturday with a very, very, good chance of being competitive. Was I shocked and surprised we won the league? In some respects, yes, in other respects, no. The amount of time, energy and effort I put in to this, constantly trying to understand my players; putting on training sessions that allowed us to go out on a Saturday ready for the players to deploy their qualities, as well as the demands and expectations that were on the players shoulders, for me, everything pointed towards us being a trophy winning team. As I hadn’t been in this position before, I didn’t realise til retrospect that we earned that.”
Stuart Cargill was a key figure in the Kelty side that term, scoring 35 goals, but Courts agreed it was a team effort which ultimately saw them lift the Superleague trophy.
“To be fair, if you look at that season, Stuart Cargill – along with the rest of the lads – had an electric start to the season which builds confidence, which builds momentum. He was someone who absolutely set the league alight and he also fits in perfectly into the way we want to play, the way we like to press and he worked his way to that level of performance through the way he trained for games and since then, and throughout my whole tenure as manager, he has been an important talisman for Kelty. Our first trophy winning side, I definitely feel their was a lethal streak to their game. When there was opportunities to put the opposition to the sword, they definitely did. Since we have moved to astroturf, I think we have diluted that because of the way we pass and play – we can still be ruthless and we still have the same characteristics but, to be honest, I feel teams respect us a little more now therefore they adapt their tactics against us, so there are plenty variables to these things.”
The following season, Kelty moved to their new home, New Central Park, but they weren’t to retain their Superleague crown.
“I think the full element for me has been timing. Dean McKenzie getting involved on a daily basis as main sponsor and my day-to-day contact with the club; we have a similar outlook on football and we are both extremely ambitious. We have a very supportive committee and I think we have created something really special in such a short space of time. We also have, and have had, some phenomenal players, at a fantastic point in their playing careers, who wanted to join the journey we are on and bought into the philosophies of the club: through that, they have produced so fantastic and phenomenal results. With all that said, I think the coming together of everyone involved with the club has happened at the perfect time and that has allowed the club to drive forward.”
“We knew that season was going to be a challenge, and it was. We were the champions and for the first 10 games of the season we were away from home as the astroturf was being laid; we had brought in 6 new players and we were also competing in the William Hill Scottish Cup so, we had a lot of different distractions, but, the moat pleasing thing for me was that up til the last 4 or 5 games of the season, we were still challenging to retain our title. On reflection, we probably ran out of steam a little bit due to all the different challenges we had and Bonnyrigg Rose were deserving of winning the league. They had a very good team and we had to tip our hat to them, but, we had our own challenges – we got injuries to key players but, I knew the right profile of player had been signed, that was capable of playing on astroturf one week and grass the next, as well as being able to play in a manner that I feel is befitting of the style we like to play, as well as being very competitive.”
Kelty have since regained their Superleague title, but that will be their last, after converting from junior to the East of Scotland league for this campaign – which will now give them the chance to eventually reach the SPFL structure.
“It is almost a fairytale story – to have almost been relegated to then the very next season winning the championship; but then, equally, most people will accept that it is a great achievement winning it first time round, but, it is very difficult to retain it or regain it, so, by doing it in the manner we did last season: going 26 games unbeaten, a record points total, only losing twice in the league all season all while being pushed to the penultimate match of the season by Bonnyrigg Rose, I think it was a really special achievement last year and fair play to the boys because we were pushed all the way by a fantastic Bonnyrigg side.”
“I talk about no mediocrity or complacency, but, the players are only human – when you go 26 games unbeaten, and to be fair, it was more than that as we were undefeated in pre-season either, then you get, indirectly, an invincibility feeling amongst the players and that first defeat, undoubtedly, it rocked us as we didn’t play well at all against Kilwinning Rangers and then we went on to get beat for the first time in the league the following week at home to Jeanfield, so, for the very first time we were on the ropes and we firstly had to gather ourselves, but, one thing I know about these players is they have good resilience and are good at handling adversity. But, there is no doubt losing those two games, I did feel they were on the ropes but I fully believed in that group of lads.”
“Kelty is an easy sell at the best of times, at the moment,” insists Courts. “We have a good reputation of looking after people; I would like to think the environment is suitable for players to come in and play at the top of their game, whilst, we are also ambitious; we have good surroundings in terms of the facilities we have got and that actually brings a different challenge as we are aspirational team to play for, so, in my mind the challenge then becomes to make sure we sign the right type of players – those who are on an upwards trajectory, aspirational, motivational; that they fit into the ethos of Kelty as well as them recognising that our success will be built on hard work, a lot of togetherness as well as other expectations. From the seniors to the juniors; from the juniors to the East of Scotland league, there is an apparent different style of play – I would say it is more technical. The teams are also coached technically, also. You can see there is an identity within these teams by the way they play and like to pass the ball: you can also argue that the squads are younger and energetic, which will bring a different challenge as well. I would say the coaches are probably a little bit more tactically aware in terms of having different formations they’d like their teams to play, so, within that, that provides a different challenge for our players and already, I have actually seen my players being more mentally fatigued in games because the teams are coached well, so our players are needing to think more, problem solve more, but I think the players are enjoying the step up and that challenge which this next level presents as it has taken them out of their comfort zone slightly.”
What is the overall ambition this season for the Fife club?
“Our end result, is to earn the right to be the champions. So, in terms of our preparations, our respect for league, the message we give them, the players we sign…everything, for me, has to be designed in a manner that gives us the right to be competitive and to consider ourselves a potential champion within this league. We are a humble club, we are respectful; we don’t have an inferiority complex over anybody else – we respect the challenge of the other teams, particularly last season’s champions, Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale, but, we want to earn the right to be up there and everything we do is geared up to allow us to at least attempt that, this season. Going right back to our pre-season programme, we have taken on games against Lowland League opposition as that is sides we might come up against in cup duty this year; already, we have saw ourselves drawn against Spartans and Selkirk (who are both Lowland League teams) – we tried to pre-empt that. What we have found out from the Qualifying Cup is that we have faced two very well organised sides; young, energetic, hungry, talented teams and I think our boys have equipped themselves really well We showed the teams every respect and thankfully we have been able to prevail because of that.”
Today, however, is the big day and Kelty begin their new adventure with their opening East of Scotland league match at home, against Eyemouth..
“Naturally, after a defeat [against Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale in the Scottish Cup], the boys have been in a bit of a reflective mood, but, we realise we gave everything last Saturday – in terms of effort and commitment, I felt the boys gave everything they had for the club last week but unfortunately football can come down to the smallest of margins – we went down to 9 men and lost a last-minute goal. This week, we have a chance to bounce back as it is the first game of the season, so, the boys will be excited. It is against a team, who, managed to win 7 games last season – although they did lose 10 – so, again, as the league goes on, we will do more digging in terms of how they like to play, how they like to set-up, where their dangers lie, but, ultimately, we will be looking at how we can place as much damage upon them, as well. I am extremely happy with the squad. Recruitment is always topical at our club – we are always looking at our squad, seeing who can come in and who can add value and who can help take us to the next level. I have done a lot of our business pro-actively, whilst, trying to keep us as competitive as possible last season in the Superleague. Some changes this summer have been enforced, because, Craig Thomson has left the club, for example, to go to pastures new. Conrad Courts has retired. I am still a part of the squad, although, I haven’t played yet this year, so we are going through a little bit of a transitional phase ourselves, so, overall, ii have been delighted by the way the new players have integrated themselves – both in terms of what we are expecting from them, and their delivery of that on the pitch. It has been first-class so far, I am really happy.”
“I have been pleasantly surprised with the support and interest in us and our move to the East of Scotland league,” concludes Courts. “We have had phenomenal support in my tenure as manager; I think we have rewarded them with the brand of football we have played, as well as winning two Superleague trophies. When we went to our first game this season – Tynecastle away – I was really pleased with the numbers and the vocal support which we received. Looking at last week’s match, despite the defeat, the backing they gave us was great and this week I would encourage them all to be the exact same. I am always looking for us, as a club, to invest in the community and give back as much as we take, so, I am just hoping the fans will enjoy the journey with us as we continue to grow, together.”
A massive thank you to Thomas Courts who gave up almost an hour of his time for me to conduct this interview There will be another article with Thomas released on Tuesday, reviewing his own career.