Declan McManus on his time with Dunfermline: “Performance wise, I think this was my most consistent season”

This article was originally released in the Official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme, during the 2017-18 season; the edition was DAFC’s Play-Off Quarter-Final Tie with Dundee United. McManus has since moved on to Ross County and this article has been updated. Last Update: 10th August 2018.

Thanks to DAFC for allowing me to publish my article on to my website.  

Declan McManus has found life difficult over the past few seasons, after an unsuccessful period in England with Fleetwood Town. However, last campaign saw a rejuvenated player thrive under the stewardship of Allan Johnston and Sandy Clark, while also becoming a Fans Favourite at East End Park. Now, the forward returns with Ross County following his summer switch to the Staggies.

McManus began his senior career with Aberdeen.

“Growing up, I was a big Celtic fan; my whole family are.  I was a season-ticket holder with my dad, so, having gone to so many games with him at such a young age, I become very passionate about Celtic and then my love for football came from there. I used to just run about the house with a ball – I actually started playing for a team when I was just 3!

When I moved up to school, I was playing for the primary 7 team when I was only in primary 3; ironically, my big brother was in that team too. It was something in which I found out I was pretty good at it from a young age and I have just stuck at it since then.”

Celtic’s legendary Swedish striker Henrik Larsson was a big influence on Declan as a child.

“He is my favourite of all time. But, when you love football, you watch any football, so, I used to watch a lot of English football too. Players such as [Thierry] Henry were guys I looked up to as well. I used to love watching and learning. I have always been a striker, certainly when I was at Boys Club level anyway. When I went Pro-Youth with Aberdeen, I was a wee bit bigger than most at that time, so, even at Under-9’s I was slightly taller than the others, and, because of that, they stuck me in defence for a while.

To be fair though, I think that helped me find my feet at that level and eventually I got back up-front: there was a period where we lost for four weeks in a row, so, I got moved back forward and I scored for the next four weeks in a row, and, ever since then, I have always been a forward as far as I can remember. I was at Celtic Boys Club in Glasgow which isn’t actually a feeder team for Celtic, but, their scouts were always at the games. Then, Aberdeen came in for me and I had a choice at a young age; did I want to go to Aberdeen or Celtic?”

In the end, McManus chose Pittodrie, as he rose up through the ranks at the Granite City club.

“When I was looking at my future, I decided moving to Aberdeen gave me more of a chance of playing first-team football and ultimately, that is how it panned out. I went from Under-9’s, at 8-year old, to playing for their first-team, it was an unbelievable journey. I wouldn’t say I am the same player as now though. I was an out-and-out striker back then and – to be honest, as early as 3 seasons ago with Morton, I was still in that mould. My game was solely based on goals, but, over the past year or so, certainly since my time at Dunfermline, I have adapted my game to be doing more than just the one job of scoring goals. The whole chasing back and working harder for the team has helped me set-up a lot of goals for the team as well as score 13 last season, too.

It was the 2011/12 season and I was only 17-years old when I made my breakthrough: I had been training a lot with the first-team that campaign and then, roughly, half-way through the season, Craig Brown kept on encouraging me to keep doing what I was doing as I felt I was doing really well. I can’t fault him, to be fair, as he was brilliant with me and he was under massive amounts of pressure. It would have been a big shout to throw me in at such a young age, and, when he did, I ended up making my debut at East End Park!”

It was a 3-0 win for the Pars that afternoon, as Aberdeen lost to Jim Jefferies side.

“It was an unbelievable feeling. It is something you always dream of doing, so, to make my debut, it was absolutely amazing. Even though we lost, I was still buzzing – I think I was the only Aberdeen player happy when we were going back up the road that evening! I had my dad and my grandad here and it was just a great day for myself, personally.

Getting that wee taste helped me a lot as I knew I was getting closer to becoming a first-team player. It gave me the motivation to attack that summer harder than I normally would because I wanted to come back fitter and impress straight away. As a young player, I think you are beyond the point of nerves when your name is called to go on. You aren’t even thinking about being nervous as you’ve got 1000 other things running through your head. I feel you tend to get slightly more nervous as you get older, especially in the bigger games. I can’t remember even feeling nerves, I was just excited and I couldn’t stop thinking about scoring a goal and what celebration I would do!”

The following season, McManus made 7 appearances for the Dons.

“Before my debut, Craig Brown was at an Under-20’s game at Pittodrie and I scored a hat-trick…he came down to see me after the match and offered me a 2-year first-team deal. I was seen as a first-team player contract wise and he moved into the first-team dressing room and things like that, so, I began to feel and was treated more like a first-team player that next season. In terms of game-time, I knew I still had a lot of work to do and I wasn’t going to instantly become a regular.

I felt like I was getting there gradually. Derek McInnes came in but I was never put to the side or put back in any way – he also believed in me as a first-team player. Ii was involved in a lot of the games, even though I may not have come on. We went to Celtic Park and beat Celtic, and that was a great experience. As a young boy, you just need to cherish these opportunities and I think that, from my point of view, it was important I got the chance to have these types of experiences at such a young age as when you do eventually get your chance, if you haven’t got used to big crowds and pressurised situations then you are going to find it hard to adjust straight away.”

Declan was yet to make his first senior start and that is why he then moved on loan to Paul Hartley’s Alloa Athletic in the Scottish Championship.

“At the end of that season, I was meant to start against Hearts, but, one of the other strikers signed a new deal so he got a start instead. I remember playing about half-an-hour of that game; we were losing when I came on and come full-time, Derek McInnes told me in the dressing room that I had changed the game. I remember I was feeling as if I had made another step closer and the following term would be massive for myself. I went into that pre-season starting and playing well during the friendly matches, but, then he made a couple of good signings – David Goodwillie and guys like that. I then fell out of favour a little bit and that is why I decide to move on.

At the time, it wasn’t something I had personally asked for. However, I was a team-mate of Paul Hartley’s and he went to Derek McInnes and enquired about me as he really rated me as a player. Having known Paul, I wanted to go and try it. With it being in the Championship, it gave me a good chance to go and test myself. It was a massive wake-up call for me, at a young age. I went there and it was against big, strong, defenders, which I wasn’t used to from playing at Under-20’s level – I was never used to being shoved off the ball or things like that. I was normally quicker than most defenders, so, it was a bit of a shock to the system, but, I feel in football you learn more from your setbacks than you do from your victories, so, I definitely feel this move has helped me to go to where I am now. It wasn’t a good time for me back then I wasn’t scoring goals and the team was struggling, so, it was certainly a massive learning curve.”

‘Dec’ has had international recognition, winning caps at Under-18, Under-19 and Under-21 level.

“I was in the Under-18’s squad first of all. That was mainly just a friendly squad, but, then I got into the Under-19’s squad for the Elite Round of the Euros. That was a great experience as I played against guys that have went on to become worldwide superstars. Some of the players I remember facing were Serge Gnabry, I have played against Kingsley Coman, Rabio, who is at PSG…Nathan Ake; Leroy Sane of Manchester City. I have played against a lot of good players and it has helped me in my career so far. You can never not learn when you face guys of that quality.

I know it wasn’t at first-team level, but, to score a goal for my country was an unreal feeling. You are coming up against really good players and now when I look back at it all, it is something that I will cherish and have fond memories of.”

McManus’ first senior start came for the Wasps away to Peterhead, while, Declan scored his first senior goal against Greenock Morton.

“I think I only signed a couple of days before I made my debut. I wasn’t sure if I was going to play but Paul had said on the Friday that I was going to start. I think I played the full 90 minutes on my adrenalin alone as I was buzzing; I set up a goal and we won, so, it was a good day all round for me. I was a relief when I scored against Morton as I got a large monkey off my back. It was a counter-attack and the cross was played in, I have taken a touch and the defenders has dived past me so I have just put it onto my left-foot and put it past the goalkeeper. Seeing it hit the net, was great, as it made me realise I can score goals at a professional level. That certainly kicked me on for the following season.

At the time, I wasn’t satisfied with my 6-month loan spell, no. It wasn’t the football I was used to: I was used to going out, scoring goals and winning games. Instead, I was with a team who were struggling and fighting down at the bottom of the table. I don’t feel I enjoyed it at the time, but, after I went back to Aberdeen, I can see with hindsight now that it was definitely a massive help.”

McManus went back to Aberdeen but failed to nail down a regular game within the first-team squad.

“I remember I felt a bit of pressure when I returned to Pittodrie as I had been out at a team in the division below and hadn’t done that well (19 appearances, 1 goal). Even though I was playing well, I wasn’t scoring goals and the team wasn’t getting great results. With only a year left on my contract, I had thoughts of “if I can’t play at Championship level, how am I going to manage it at Premiership standard?”, but, as I’ve said, I learnt a lot from the defeats we suffered and the low points I experienced.

My final Dons appearance came as a late substitute in the Europa League: it was a surreal moment. You watch European nights on the TV as a kid and go “that’ll be amazing to play in” and, even though it was only the Qualifying Rounds of the competition, it is another thing I can tick off my list and say I have accomplished. It was certainly a special night for me.”

That appearance came at the beginning of a successful season for Declan, with the striker moving to League One side Morton under the guidance of Jim Duffy.

“I wasn’t first-choice in the pecking order and I was at the stage where I felt I couldn’t learn anymore from Under-20’s football. I went in to see the manager and asked him if he can help me find a loan move. I was looking at a couple of Championship teams, again, but, when Jim Duffy gave me a call and told me he was very interested, as well as them being full-time, which intrigued me. I knew it was a pretty big club down in Greenock. They are well-supported too so it was a no-brainer for me. I knew it was a team that was going for the league and were trying to get back up at the first time of asking. That was a big attraction for me and thankfully we managed to achieve that.

I put a lot of pressure on myself because I knew I hadn’t done well with my loan move to Alloa. This was a completely different scenario though as I was now at a club who had to be winning games every week rather than just picking up points. I knew I had to go to Cappielow and be the player I was at Under-20’s level – I had to be scoring goals and being a stand-out player most weeks. At that point, I felt if I didn’t do that, my chance at Aberdeen may be gone come the following summer.”

Declan is very complimentary of Jim Duffy, as he explains how the ex-Clyde gaffer brought his game on leaps and bounds.

“Jim was brilliant with me. I still speak to some of the Morton boys who are still there and none of them have a bad word to say about him. He believed in me and I learned tons off of him. He had trust in me; even if I was having a bad game, he had belief that I could do something to help win us the match and that gave me a lot of confidence. I knew that most weeks, I would play the full 90 – having that kind of faith in you, it is a great thing, especially as a striker. It was physical in League One: I know I was more mature, and stronger, than I had been but I still wasn’t where I felt I could have been. I felt it was something I had to go and do, because if you want to go and play in the Premiership, you can’t hide. I feel I thrived in that environment in the end.

I remember my debut against Ayr; I had a couple of good chances to score and then I started thinking “aw naw, not again!”, but, thankfully, in the second game against Stranraer, I won and penalty and the boys let me take it: I stuck it away and that allowed me to get that monkey off my back again. I scored another goal in the same half and I knew that I was up and running then. I almost got a hat-trick in that match but I managed to get one the week after. As a striker you always want to score as many goals as you can and have the balls in the house to show you managed to score 3 or more goals in a match. Once I got 5 in 3 games, I ended up having to set myself new targets to try and achieve that term. That season was surreal.”

The attacker scored 23 goals in 35 appearances that campaign as the Ton won the League One title.

“Our biggest challengers were Dunfermline, but, they hit a really bad spell and fell out of the equation. We also had Brechin and Forfar on our tails and I remember after every game, I’d check the scores and say “how are these teams still winning?!”…we had a very, very, young team and we knew we were better than most sides in the league. It got to the stage where guys were getting nervous and games were becoming tight. It was when we were only 3 or 4 games from the title, we had the chance to go top but we were 3-1 down with 11 minutes to go; we come back and won 4-3 if I remember correctly. That was the time we knew we could go on and lift the trophy.

Then we had a vital game away to Stranraer in the penultimate match of the campaign. I think we were tied on points going in to the match, but, I was able to score two goals with us winning 2-0. That put us in the driving seat and all we had to do was win the last match of the season. Even though we had a game to play, we felt we had sealed the title at that point because we psychologically got a boost from the result while it must’ve been the opposite for Stranraer. We had all the pressure on us [against Peterhead in the final game of the season]. We were in the driving seat but we knew we also had to win. Peterhead were a tough team that were very hard to beat. They were decent and had a lot of good players: I remember thinking “I wish we had an easier game!”. They never really had much to play for, at that time, but, we knew they wouldn’t just roll over to us. We started really well but then Peterhead scored from a corner and you think oh dear, but, it was around 5 minutes later we heard Stranraer were losing and that perked us up a wee bit. We just felt 6,000 people breathe a sigh of relief after we got the equaliser and then we just gave it a big push during the second-half – after I scored the goal to make it 3-1, we seemed to know then that the title was in the bag. It was an amazing feeling knowing you are going to lift a trophy.”

Following his successful loan stint in Renfrewshire, McManus made the move south to join Fleetwood Town in English League One.

“I honestly didn’t have any plans for that summer. It was late on in the season when I was at Morton and I was speaking to my agent about Aberdeen offering me a new contract and it must have been about an hour later, he called me back to say Fleetwood Town wanted me to go down for a trial inside the next 2 days. I had spoken with Derek McInnes and he had offered me a new contract but it wasn’t really what I was looking for as I was having my wee girl and he’d only offered me a 1-year deal. I was looking for a bit of security and at that time, I felt I needed to look elsewhere for that. Everything went really fast and it was all new to me, going through that whole moving clubs permanently scenario. I was happy going into the summer as I knew what I was doing. It was certainly a relief.

I had gone through pre-season without scoring until the final friendly, where I scored against Spanish side Getafe – only to see the goal be disallowed for offside! i was raging, I just wanted to score to go into the season with some confidence. I remember I got the ball on my debut against Southend; it was bouncing and it dropped perfectly for me and I just smashed it home into the top-corner. It was probably the best goal I’ve ever scored! That really kicked me on again as it gave me a big boost. I played the first 3 or 4 matches, but, then Graham [Alexander] got sacked which was a big downer for me as I didn’t know who was coming in. He was the manager that signed me on a 2-year contract as he believed in me but almost right at the beginning of my time there, I had so much uncertainty.”

Things went from bad to worse for Declan, as he made the decision to head back home to re-join Morton on loan.

“I went away with Scotland Under-21’s and when I returned, the new boss was Steven Pressley. He didn’t take a shine to me for whatever reason, but, that is just football. It is full of ups and downs and I had to learn from it all. I had looked at other options down south, in terms of a loan move. But, as soon as Jim got on the phone and expressed an interest, he made me feel as if he wanted me more than anyone else. There was also the attraction of playing in big matches against teams like Hibs and Rangers every few weeks, so, that persuaded me to come back up to Scotland.

It is a lot of stress because I didn’t know what was coming next. I was hoping that it’d be a manager who’d give me the same amount of chances to impress as Graham did, but, unfortunately, Steven never. I had a lot of bad times when I was there under Pressley because I wasn’t playing and I got pushed right out of favour: I was seen to be on a bigger contract than I should have been at my age. I had a lot of dark days, but, looking back on it, I wouldn’t change it as I have learnt a lot from that experience and it has driven me on this season to keep going and become the player I know I can be.”

When McManus did return to Morton, he wasn’t as potent in front of goal for the Cappielow club.

“When I re-signed, the fans were all delighted as they seem to love me down there. I had a massive support at Morton and I was glad to get that back and it really helped me get out of the dark hole I was in. I hadn’t played a lot of games up to the January, so, I had a lot of fitness to catch up on. Jim being Jim, and believing in me, threw me straight in and let me go and play. I gradually built my fitness levels up and, to be honest, the end of the season came at the wrong time for me – I felt I had only really played for half a season.

I never scored as many goals as I wanted to, but, I feel that was due to not being close to being up to speed when I initially arrived. I did grab a couple of goals while playing slightly deeper, with big Denny Johnstone playing up front, ahead of me. That was a big learning curve for me, in terms of playing in a slightly different role, by doing a lot of the dirty work which I hadn’t really done before I had signed for Fleetwood.”

The struggles which the 23-year old went through weren’t over though, as he was loaned out to Raith Rovers, suffering relegation with the Kirkcaldy club.

“At that time, I honestly think if I didn’t have my wee baby girl to come home to, I probably would have given up with football. Times were getting that tough for me; I was going in every day but I was being treated as if I wasn’t there. It was something I wasn’t used to from my time with Aberdeen, and I now know what to expect within the world of football. These things are going to happen and you need to be mentally strong enough to take the lows; there are a lot more lows than there is highs in football. Now I have got my wee girls, I realise it isn’t the end of the world if something goes wrong with my football. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to be going somewhere new when I joined Raith.

I had Morton wanting me back that season but Fleetwood pushed me towards Raith. I remember not really wanting to go at the beginning as I wasn’t ready to be playing every week again mentally in new surroundings. I genuinely wasn’t in a good place. I had spoke with Jim Duffy and I told him “I’ll be back” as I had decided that is where I wanted to go to on loan. But, Raith had offered to pay more of my wage, so, I was pushed towards them by the powers that be down south. Jim took it hard as he thought I had chosen to go to Raith instead, but, I hadn’t. I felt I had let him down considering what he had given me in the past couple of seasons, so, when I went into Raith, I had to dig deep as it was a new season and a new chance to try kick on playing football again. I enjoyed the management team, the group of boys and the club, it wasn’t anything to do with them. I just wasn’t in a good place mentally and I really wasn’t enjoying my football back then.”

During the season, Gary Locke would be sacked and replaced by John Hughes, but the Rovers were not to avoid the trap-door to League One.

“We went through a bad spell on the pitch at the time and I think as a group of players, we all knew Gary leaving was coming. When any manager loses their job, you feel responsible as you are playing in his team, you are the one who is on the park not producing good enough results. It isn’t nice to be apart of that, especially when you know you are keeping their job but you are not. John Hughes was at the other end of the scale. I enjoyed the way he wanted to play as he wanted to play nice football. It never worked though.

Until the last game of the season, I felt we were going to stay-up. i remember the Brechin games in the play-off, though…we pretty much dominated the whole first-leg, but, they got one chance through a penalty and scored it. It finished 1-1 as I scored a free-kick and then we went back for the home leg; I felt we would take care of the tie, but, a few boys made personal errors that day and that gifted them goals. They were winning 2-1 and I scored in the last minute to take it to extra-time. Then we went 3-2 up and I thought that was us, but, they scored a great free-kick to take it to penalties and the rest is history. I felt we didn’t get any luck, but, again, that was another learning curve for me.”

Come the summer of 2017, McManus swapped Kirkcaldy for Dunfermline with the striker feeling he had the best season of his short career so far with the Fife club.

“I was definitely in a better place mentally, towards the last few months of my time with Raith, especially with what was going on off-the-park, I was a lot happier. Although I always knew I wasn’t going to be contracted any longer with Fleetwood, for them to actually say those words, it took a massive weight off my shoulders. I knew I had to win myself a contract somewhere else and I managed to do that. When I came to the club, I knew it was a clean slate. When Dunfermline came in, it was a no-brainer, I instantly wanted to go, so, when the opportunity arose, I took it immediately and I can say that I enjoyed every single minute of my period there.

Performance wise, I think this was my most consistent season in my career to date; setting up goals, scoring goals and my all-round general play, I feel it was a great season for me. I am my harshest critic and I feel I played well and contributed a lot to us winning games, even though I didn’t score a lot towards the end of my time at the Pars.”

The SPFL Ladbrokes Championship rivals will go head-to-head on match-day two, as McManus returns to Fife for the first time since swapping the Pars for Dingwall this summer.

“The 12 months I was with Dunfermline is one in which I will always remember because it made me love football again. I have really fond memories of my time there; I don’t have a bad thing to say about the club or the people associated with it as I thoroughly enjoyed myself. To be honest, when I first went into the summer break, Dunfermline were the only team I had in my head. The club took a couple of weeks to get round to speaking to all the boys and offering us deals and during that time slot, other teams know you haven’t signed anything and get in touch.

It was a personal decision in the end to come up here and join Ross County: it was nothing against the club, I just wanted to try something new. Obviously, when you are deciding on your next move, you need to consider your family and things like that, but, my hardest decision was footballing-wise. I needed to decide whether to leave Dunfermline or not because I loved my time there and I was really enjoying my football – it was hard to leave, but, that is the kind of person I am. I try to take risks and try to test myself, even if it is outwith my comfort zone.”

McManus joins the Staggies following their relegation from the top-flight of Scottish football.

“It is a club which has a great backing from the club chairman, who is a big fan of the club and does everything he possible can for it. When the move first came about, I checked their retained list and they had kept on a lot of their best players, so, for me, I was signing for a team which already has really good players for this level and obviously I want to add to that and I back myself to do so, too. We have had a good enough pre-season and a decent BetFred Cup campaign, as well as a good first win in the league last weekend, but, this will be our toughest game yet against Dunfermline. We don’t look at the Championship and think ‘we are favourites’, but, we know within the group that we have a good enough squad to be challenging up at the right end of the table. I’ve played in this division for 3 or 4 years now and I know how tough a task it can be to win matches consistently. We certainly won’t be looking upon this division as easy – when you see Livingston going all the way last season, nobody would have foresaw that at the beginning of last campaign, so, that shows you how unpredictable the Championship is and can be.”

The 24-year-old will hope to line-up against some familiar faces as Ross County travel to East End Park on Saturday.

“We had so much possession and so many chances last weekend against Alloa. They came up with a game-plan and tried to stifle us: they only had one chance I think, and that came from our mistake. They came for a point and they stuck to their task well, but, we found a way and if we manage to score an 88th minute each week I don’t think anyone connected to our club will care as good teams always find a way. We know how hard a game it will be this weekend and having played with a lot of the boys still at the Pars from last year, I know how strong their squad is – they got a great result last Saturday, but, I feel their squad is stronger than Dundee United’s, so, it wasn’t really a surprise to me to be honest.

We are under no illusions that Dunfermline will be our hardest game yet this season. We have trained well and got ourselves set for the match: we are completely focused on ourselves; we have went through Dunfermline’s strengths and where we can stop them, but, in the main, it is about us and what we can do right. We have a more than capable squad of going to East End Park and taking home the three points.”

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