Thursday, 28 July 2011

Me and Davie Irons down by the schoolyard.

Davie Irons: vogue.

Stenhousemuir's annual Meet the Manager sessions often provide an interesting spectacle. Having attended the meetings since 2006, I've witnessed some fascinating showdowns, apathy and indifference, and dull pragmatism. At my first meeting, Des McKeown aired his dirty laundry for over two and half hours in front of astonished supporters, his kitchen sink melodrama trumping even the most ludicrous episode of EastEnders. From the Colin Cramb saga to Greig Denham's ill-advised rant in a national tabloid, his revelations were outrageous. He went on to reveal his plans for the season ahead and how he planned to construct his side around the "Berwick 5". Like a slick car salesman or an evangelical preacher, McKeown transfixed me. I remember leaving the meeting, wide-eyed and delirious... We can win the league! The Scottish Cup! The Champions League! That season, the manager resigned before November and we finished in seventh place.

The next year at Campbell Money's first assembly, the mood was far darker. I can only compare it to sitting through a detention with a particularly ill-tempered school headmaster. Why are you not playing Craig Menzies at right fullback?, somone asked him. Rolling his eyes and grinding his teeth, he hissed that Zee was actually a midfielder and would not play at fullback again, despite the youngster having played his entire career at the club there. Money lowered the bar so low that if the club had been relegated to a regional league then liquidated, it would have felt as though we performed above expectation. John Coughlin's three meetings from 2008 to 2010, meanwhile, were fairly dry affairs, with the arch pragmatist laying out his expectations for the seasons ahead. Other than the season he won promotion to the Second Division, he failed on almost all of his pledges.

Having met Davie Irons at the Player of the Year night in May, I was impressed with his ambition and aspirations. In a brief encounter, I thanked him for keeping the club in the division and bringing an entertaining brand of football back to Stenhousemuir (if I remember correctly, I spoke to him after several pints of strong lager and came across as fairly lucid - later on that evening, I became roaringly drunk and accosted Scott Dalziel, sandbagged him and ruined his night. I genuinely think that my behaviour that evening was a major factor in his decision to move to East Fife).

Last night, I was looking to forward to hearing his plans and objectives for his first full season in charge of the club. Fielding questions in front of over fifty supporters in the club's Ormond Suite, the manager remained polite, gracious and candid throughout. Touching on his career with the police force, the players he's brought into the club, his ambitions for the season ahead and his opinions on Simon Lynch's pop career, he talked openly and honestly for an hour and a half.

One of the first, and probably one of the most pretinent questions, was how Irons would combine his work with the police force with his role as manager of Stenhousemuir. It was an issue that most supporters felt required clarification. He explained that he applied to join the police two years ago but due to a recruitment freeze, was only offered a position with them around March or April of this year. His application was made clear to the Board of Directors during his interview process and he was keen to offer supporters the same assurances he offered them: it will not affect his ability to manage the club. His Chief Constable has stated that his job will not be detrimental to his role at Stenhousemuir and that the police force consider having professional sportsmen in their ranks as a "feather in their cap", particlularly one that manages in the SFL. He also pointed to another police officer - referee Iain Brines - as an example of a similar professional afforded the same time off.

What will happen, one supporter asked him, If you're successful with Stenhousemuir and a full-time club approaches you? Irons sighed. Full-time management has passed him by and it's something he no longer considers a viable career move. He acknowledged that he's never likley to manage the likes of Barcelona or Manchester United and now his aim is to combine a full-time job with his role at Stenhousemuir. When he managed Gretna and Greenock Morton, he found he had little time to think about anything else other than football. Managing a part-time side, Irons admitted, gives a good balance between his personal life and his professional comittments. In the unlikely event that there are any changes to his circumstances, the board will be the first people to know.

Thoughts turned to the squad for the season ahead and the squad of players assembled. Several questions were asked about the manager's transfers in and out of the club and special attention was paid to the strikers. Irons expressed frustration that Scott Dalziel chose to leave the club after he was close to agreeing terms for the season ahead. When pressed on Simon Lynch's retirement, meanwhile, the manager was more candid. After the season had finished, Lynch failed to return any of his phonecalls. When he eventually got back to him, the striker revealed his plans to retire from football. Giving his reasons for retiring, the manager realised there was no point in trying to convince him to stay and wished him well. Although he was unprepared to explain the reasons behind Lynch's decision, he expressed his disappointment, especially after the board made substantial financial outlay on the player's wages and his surgery at the start of last season. Did you like his pop video? It's a catchy tune. Goalkeeper Chris McLuskey, a close friend of Lynch, has a firm belief that he's the next Paolo Nutini in the making.

There seemed to be a misunderstanding about the re-signing to Paul Quinn. In May, the club website listed the players that had firm offers for the new season, the players that were released and four players that were offered training facilities. Quinn was listed as having been offerd facilities. Why was he not offered terms in the first place? He was offered a contract in May, Irons affirmed. During his tenure at Threave Rovers, he had watched the player when scouting the team for their Scottish Cup tie and was impressed by his determination and attitude. When he watched him playing, he felt that Quinn suffered becuse he ploughed a lone furrow in attack while but added that since he's worked with him, he's grown to admire his enthusiasm and application in training. Irons believes that if the player can improve his fitness over the season, then there's a fine footballer in there somwhere.

The manager went on to reveal his frustrations in his attempts to being in players for the forthcoming season. After Dalziel announced that he was leaving the club, Gareth Wardlaw was very close to joining and taking his place. Wardlaw failed to negotiate a contract at Falkirk and was about to join Stenhousemuir before Ayr United offered him terms. The manager seemed rueful. There were other players that he was in advanced negotiations with that moved elsewhere. No names were mentioned, but Irons quipped that even Sir Alex Ferguson can't always sign the players he wants.

When pressed as to who he sees as his Number One goalkeeper for the season ahead, Irons couldn't give an answer. While Chris McLuskey started the game against Partick Thistle, Ally Brown will play at Cowdenbeath and the manager will make his decision after that. He believes he has two of the best goalkeepers in the league and cannot choose between them. The decision as to who starts against Brechin in the club's opening league fixture will be a difficult one. If Ally Brown throws a few into the net on Saturday then it'll make the decision easier, but at the moment, there's nothing between them. He then went on to reveal that in the summer, he was given the option to let one of the goalkeepers leave and use their wage to bring in another outfield player. The proposal was rejected.

He admitted that he's gambled with the size of the squad for the season. Irons wanted to bring in a smaller pool of quality players on larger saleries and augment the squad with youngsters. With new SFL initiatives to reward clubs for playing U-21 players, Irons is keen to mix a small pool of quality senior players on good wages with youngsters from the U-19s side. The manager has high hopes for Sean Dickson (already an established member of the first team), Jack Hamilton, Jordan Burns and, in particular, Stewart Love. Love has an excellent chance of making it, he said, and will feature throughout the season.

Special praise, however, was reserved for Grant Plenderlieth and Irons paid tribute to his performances from last season. The manager claimed that the young forward won six points for the team after providing the assists for the winning goals in games against Dumbarton and Airdrie and reckons that while he may not get ninety minutes every week, he sees him as an important player for the club and someone that can make an impact throughout the season.

At this point chairman Martin McNairney joined in with the discussion and commented how much he enjoys Irons' willingness to integrate youth players into the team. Under John Coughlin, the youth players barely featured and often cut frustrated figures in the stands on matchday. He made reference to Ally Love and Mark McLennan, two youngsters that Coughlin signed on loan from St Mirren and how they were no better than the players starring in the U-19s. From his point of view, it was frustrating to see the club spend thousands of pounds on developing their own youth players for none of them to come close to getting a game. If any players were to come in on loan, Irons added, it would only be done towards the end of August. By this point, SPL managers have a better idea of which players feature in their plans and which ones don't. If anyone else joins the club, the manager will strengthen his attack.

Irons seemed indifferent about the club's disappointing pre-season results. The results are unimportant, he said. A team can win all their friendly matches then go on to have a terrible season, and vice-versa. While he was disappointed with the team's performance on Saturday at Partick Thistle, he was happy enough with the way they approached the second half. Asked if the improvement was due to the change from the 4-2-3-1 formation to a traditional 4-4-2, the manager seemed to aquiesce. Eric Paton spent the first half frustrated and unable to influence the game in his usual manner, so the decision was taken to play him in a more withdrawn role where he would see more of the ball and dictate the team's play. Is the 4-2-3-1 something that you're going to persue? Irons nodded and explained how he wants the formation to work.

In a 4-4-2 system, he feels that the team is exposed when they're hit on the break. With two midfielders sitting in front of the defence, it gives the team more ballast and stability. When Stenhousemuir attack and the ball is shuttled into the middle of the park, the wide forwards (Stevie Murray and Andy Rodgers in Saturday's case) are expected to come inside and involve themselves in the play while the fullbacks overlap into offensive positions. Irons felt that while McKinlay and Murray linked up well on the left flank, Willie Lyle and Rodgers were less impressive on the right. Rodgers failed to come inside and link with the likes of Paton and clung to the touchline instead. As a result, Lyle was unable to attack and provide an option on the right. It is something that the players will take their time to adapt to, he admitted. Stenhousemuir will line up in the 4-2-3-1 formation against Cowdenbeath on Saturday.

Continuing the discussion about his tactics and formations, another audience member noted how previous manager John Coughlin would scout the opposition then arrange his team to nulify their strengths instead of playing to their own. Irons would not be adopting a similar strategy. He declared that each week he will be playing his strongest eleven players and try to win every match. His formations can be adapted if needbe. The team are comfortable with a 4-4-2 and the system can be adjusted and altered if and when appropriate. If you've seen a team play once, you have a fair idea as to how they'll line up for the rest of the season. I asked him about Eric Paton's role within the 4-2-3-1 system. I mentioned that the Big Easy functions more effectively when playing in a deeper role but Irons dismissed any concerns. When he joined the club, the manager felt that we didn't have anyone that could sit in front of the defence and act as a screening midfielder, but now that Paul McHale and Brown Ferguson are playing alongside him, Paton can be utilised further forward. Irons has known Paton for a few years and feels he's the player that can unlock teams from an advanced role and he'll continue to be played there for the forseeable future.

With all major concerns addressed, the last half hour of the meeting petered out and became a dull affair. Someone raised a question about refereeing performances and with that, people began to chat amongst themselves and bicker and exchange opinions on SFL officials. It began to get a little unruly. One cantankerous old lout in particular reacted poorly to Martin McNairney's claims that the council had denied his request to erect a billboard at the bottom of Tryst Road to advertise the club's forthcoming fixtures, insisting that he knew better. I had lost interest by this point and started doodling a man dressed wearing goggles and holding a lightsaber or a harpoon in my notebook. Each time the meeting seemed to be drawing to its natural conclusion, someone make some sort of remark and comment and the affair was strung out that little bit longer than necessary. When the final comment was met with a lingering silence and people anxiously glancing at one another, the chairman drew the session to a close.

Irons thanked everyone for coming and reaffirmed his ambitions for the season ahead. With Livingston's promotion, there's now a far more level field of competition and he believes that Stenhousemuir should be challenging for a playoff position at the very least. He said that he expects East Fife and Brechin to be two of the strongest teams in the league but that his side have the quality to compete alongside them. The players want to win promotion. I want to win promotion. It can be done.

He stood to a round of applause. The fans left the suite and the meeting closed.

As I drove home, I thought about how the evening had gone and just how Stenhousemuir's season will unfold. Irons was as open and direct as anyone could have expcted but I don't think he really revealed anything unexpected. After Des McKeown's extraordinary assembly in 2006, every other session just seems prosaic. Irons' explanations about the transfers he's made, his justifications about his approach to the season ahead and his aspirations for where his team should be challenging were both predictable and understandable. It was nothing that I haven't heard from other managers before, that same spiel. I left feeling slightly disappointed about his plans to persist with the 4-2-3-1 formation and Paton's advanced role within the system. Having seen the players trying to adapt within its framework against Clyde and Partick Thistle, I'm unconvinced about it's merits at this level. For example, on Central Park's narrow pitch or at Cliftonhill, a straightforward formation is perhaps more suited. There are few teams at this level that play anything more complex than a basic 4-4-2 system. My concerns about the formation and and the Big Easy's quality from a deeper position have been raised in previous posts so there's no point in covering old ground again.

That said, after last night's meeting, I am now approaching Saturday's game with a sense of nervous excitement. A victory against Cowdenbeath in the Scottish Communities League Cup will be the perfect preparation for the league campaign and act a clear indication as to how we're equipped - both in personnel and tactically - for the year ahead. As for Irons, I have high hopes for him. While McKeown was a salesman and Money was a miserable boor, he came across as quietly passionate and ambitious in his aims for the season. I'll be there with him at the showdown.

The Irons Age is upon us!

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