Des McKeown: Once in a Lifetime

For supporters of a certain generation, Stenhousemuir’s 2005-06 season is a source of perpetual fascination. It was a Third Division campaign that should have brought the club fortune, glory and their first league championship. At the time, they were a wonderful proposition and arguably the most exciting Warriors team of the last decade. They were adventurous, cavalier and frequently thrilling.

And yet, with five games of the season remaining, everything fell to pieces. Stenhousemuir carelessly squandered a handsome advantage and were defeated and then usurped by Mixu Paatelainen’s ruthless Cowdenbeath. Dark stories began to circle Ochilview, with the unrest eventually becoming the concern of a national newspaper. The team’s very dirty laundry was aired in public.

Stenhousemuir finished 2005-06 in third place with 73 points. It would be the club’s highest ever total, but it was not enough. A season that had promised an infinite number of possibilities ended as an incoherent mess, full of regret and recrimination.

It was Des McKeown who oversaw the campaign. The manager had begun his football career as a trainee with Celtic before moving onto Airdrieonians, Albion Rovers, Queen of the South (twice) and Partick Thistle. A capable, committed full-back, the player transferred to Jimmy Bone’s Stenhousemuir in 2001 and made 25 league appearances before retiring. He returned to Ochilview as joint manager with Tony Smith in January 2004 before taking sole charge of the team in the spring of 2005.

It was McKeown who brought together a group of hugely talented, yet capricious and cantankerous players to the club, and guided them through the muck and the mire of the Third Division. And for the best part of the season, that elusive championship must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. Yet in an ultra-competitive league, and with the team’s internal wrangles beginning to overwhelm, the whole damned thing fell through his fingers and smashed on the floor.

McKeown eventually resigned midway through the following season, claiming the club’s “poisonous atmosphere” had rendered his position untenable. Some sections of the Stenhousemuir support were glad to see the back of him – they found him to be aloof and arrogant and held him directly responsible for the nature in which the 2005-06 campaign petered out.

These accusations against his character had always bristled with me. Before he stepped down at Ochilview, I had worked with McKeown on an infrequent basis for Dialogue with Des, a question and answer column published on the club’s website. I had always found him to be friendly, thoughtful, engaging and candid, and for some time, I wanted to piece together his two-and-a-half years in charge of Stenhousemuir. I wanted to find out about the true manner in which that beguiling league campaign had played out.

I met with McKeown last August in a restaurant on Glasgow’s George Square (a number of factors had precluded me from dedicating the time this article deserved until recently). Although no longer directly involved in football, McKeown now combines his full-time job as a sales director for a stationery company with a burgeoning media career. He is also a keen marathon runner and has raised almost £400,000 for MacMillan Cancer Relief. Throughout our conversation he is articulate, humorous and, most of all, honest.

“I hope this isn’t going into your Guff Managers section!” he jokes as I switch on my tape recorder.

“The tackle snapped my tibia and fibula. It was almost as if a firework had gone off inside my leg.”

McKeown’s playing career was abruptly ended during a pre-season friendly between Stenhousemuir and AFC Barrow in the summer of 2002. Four minutes into the match, an opposition player launched himself into a crude tackle and snapped McKeown’s tibia and fibula. “It was almost as if a firework had gone off inside my leg,” he says coolly.

After an initial operation, it quickly became apparent his career was finished. McKeown recalls the incident in a matter-of-fact way; I wonder how he can speak so brazenly about such an injury.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he explains. “Initially I was devastated , but I’ll say this – and I’ve said it since it happened over ten years ago – the fact I knew it was all over so early on was quite comforting. If it had been something I had tried to come back from but never really quite got there…

“The finalisation of it all was right there. It was done and dusted and I moved on with my life.”

With his playing career over, McKeown joined new Stenhousemuir manager John McVeigh’s backroom staff and, having already obtained his coaching badges, began working with the club’s youth teams on Sunday afternoons. His time was spent between his full-time job, his coaching role and frequent appearances as a pundit on BBC Radio Scotland. His increasing media commitments eventually forced him to step down from coaching, but he was soon encouraged to return to Ochilview.

Following an appalling series of results, and with Stenhousemuir languishing at the bottom of the Second Division, McVeigh was dismissed in January 2004. The board of directors had initially approached full-back Tony Smith to take charge of the first team as player-manager on an interim basis and during their initial discussions, McKeown’s name was mentioned.

“I don’t know if they had floated it to Tony that it might be worthwhile speaking to me and getting me to come in and help out,” McKeown explains. “At the time, Tony was still playing and it was something we thought we could work out between the two of us. It was supposed to be for a short-term period initially, but very quickly the club offered us the chance to take over for the remainder of the season.”

I ask about the working relationship he shared with Smith.

“It was very democratic between us,” McKeown asserts. “[Coaches] Stevie Kerrigan and Martin McBride were involved at points as well, so it was almost a confab. At training on Thursdays, we’d choose who we thought should be playing on the Saturday and go along with it.

“During the course of the 90 minutes, I was the sole arbiter for the decisions. I would speak to Tony at half-time to put across my thoughts, then after the game we would have a debrief and talk through what was happening at the next week’s training.”

Despite winning their first two matches, the second of which McKeown was absent from because of a prearranged holiday to Tenerife (“I was getting kept up to date with the score over the phone”), Stenhousemuir collected just five points from their remaining 15 matches. Keeping the club in the division was beyond the managerial novices and the team was quietly relegated long before the season finished.

“John Paul McBride was phenomenal. We would watch him in training and just laugh. He used to do things that were just ridiculous!”

Over the summer of 2004, McKeown and Smith began to rebuild the squad by releasing the large majority of McVeigh’s players, bringing in their own recruits, and promoting talented youngsters from the club’s youth teams. Their new signings included veteran striker Paul McGrillen, dynamic midfielder Lee Collins, and John Paul McBride, originally on loan from Partick Thistle. It is the latter, a former Celtic youth player once dubbed “the new Paul McStay” whom McKeown still talks about in awed, almost reverential tones.

“It was an absolute joy working with someone like John Paul,” he beams. “He was phenomenal. We would watch him at training and in bounce games and just laugh – he used to do things that were just ridiculous!

“The converse of this is that he’s a complex character. He’s had different issues in his life and as a result, when he was good he was good, but when he was bad… I don’t mean bad, I mean off the straight and narrow, he was difficult to manage… Not manage, that’s not the right word…”

I ask him to explain what he means.

“Well, JP turned up at training one day and it was pretty apparent he’d been drinking. He then disappeared for a week, I think, and I drove to Hamilton one night during the team’s training to meet him. I had managed to hunt him down, got him to come to a hotel and basically told him the way it had to be.

“To be fair to him, he’d acknowledged he’d handled things incorrectly and thought he could get away with it. And we moved on from there – there wasn’t an issue with it.”

We speak about McBride, his skill, his intelligence, his range of passing and his exquisite, natural talent. He really should have been playing at a supremely higher level than the Third Division, shouldn’t he? McKeown quietly acquiesces.

“I just wish – and this is going to sound as if I’m blowing my own trumpet – that JP had my attitude as a footballer because he would have been a star in the English Premier League. Unfortunately, social circumstances more than anything hindered his career.”

While the subsequent campaign was ultimately disappointing – Stenhousemuir finished the season in seventh, some distance behind the record-breaking champions Gretna – McKeown is keen to point out the positives from his first full season as manager.

“It was a good learning curve for me, Tony, and the players at the club,” he asserts. “After relegation, we decided to totally rebuild the squad and we tried to introduce some young guys including Tommy Sinclair and Paul Murphy. It was a good experience for them.

“There was no pressure put on us to make an immediate return to the Second. With Gretna in the division, there was an expectation that things were always going to be difficult, but I had a personal ambition to do it. We were disappointed we couldn’t put up more of a fight to get out of the league in the first year, but, as I say, it was always going to be tricky.”

In late April 2005, there were a number of changes at Stenhousemuir. Former Stranraer and Ayr United manager Campbell Money was installed as the club’s Head of Youth Development, and Tony Smith announced his decision to resign as co-manager. While Smith continued his playing career at Bathgate Thistle, McKeown took sole charge of the first team.

“I had said to Tony that if he wasn’t going to be there then I wasn’t going to be there either,” he remembers. “Tony explained that he didn’t want me to step away from it and said that if I fancied giving it a go myself, then I should do it. And that’s basically what happened.”

How did you find managing the team on your own?

“I didn’t find it much different, to be honest. I think Tony and I were fairly like-minded – it was almost a situation where whatever we spoke about, there was a kind of common sense to it. It wasn’t as if we were arguing about who should play and what formation we should use or anything.”

McKeown began the 2005-06 season by employing John “Cowboy” McCormack as his assistant (he was replaced by former Berwick Rangers manager Paul Smith later in the year) and undertook another substantial squad rebuild, signing quality, experienced players. Recruitments included centre-backs Greig Denham and John “BC” McKeown from East Stirlingshire and Cowdenbeath respectively; Jim Mercer and Marc McKenzie from Albion Rovers; Queen’s Park’s prolific forward Frankie Carroll; and full-back Joe McAlpine. The former Forfar Athletic player joined the Warriors after a spell in prison for a driving offence.

“I had played with Joe McAlpine at Queen of the South,” remembers McKeown. “He’d gone in there and taken my jersey, the wee rat! But I liked him. I had an agreement with him that when he came out, I’d stand by him and give him a contract because I knew what he could do. And Joe was fine with that.”

How did his team-mates respond to him?

“He was an open wee guy – there’s no agendas with Joe. He’d made a mistake, he was open about it and I thought it was better for him to tell people than there being whispering campaigns about where he’d been. Joe was upfront about it and we just moved on from there. It wasn’t an issue.”

Another player brought into the club was Colin Cramb from Hamilton Academical. Stenhousemuir would be his 15th club in 13 years and the striker would play a significant role in the manner in which the season unfolded.

“Look, I love Colin Cramb,” says McKeown, breaking into a smile. “As much as there were times when I would have loved to have punched the living daylights out of him, he was just one of those loveable rogues who you couldn’t really be annoyed with.

“Colin was a guy I’d met during my rehab. He had done his cruciate while he’d been playing in Holland. I connected with the guy and got on really well with him and I knew what he could bring to the team. I think the two of us hit it off. He was a gamble worth taking because his ability was tremendous, but you only need to look at the number of clubs he’s had to know that not every guy’s wrong – there’s a fundamental issue there.”

We talk at length about Cramb, one of the most predatory, technically gifted forwards to have played for Stenhousemuir – like McBride, he should have performed at a higher level for longer. Given that McKeown had discussed the player’s notoriously unpredictable and mischievous personality, I ask if he believed if he could have been the first manager to finally understand him.

“I wouldn’t have been conceited to think that I was the guy who could finally work him out,” says McKeown dismissively. “I just thought I’d give it a go anyway – there were far better managers than me that couldn’t do it, so why would I have thought I was the guy that could do it? I just thought that with a slightly different approach… I was a younger manager, a guy who’s probably more of a peer to him as opposed to an older guy telling him what to do. I tried to work with him and tried to involve him in some of the decision-making in terms of training and other bits and pieces. I just hoped he tippled to it and to be fair, for 80-90 per cent of the season, he was different class.

“Cramby’s Cramby. I think he’ll always be daft as a brush but in a loveable, nice way. I know Colin has said and done things in relation to me that were false, but you get on with it. There’s some naughtiness in him and it’s often said that he’ll regret it, but, more often than not, he’s a great guy.”

The 2005-06 season was notable as the advent of the end-of-term play-off competition and Stenhousemuir began the campaign with zeal, thrashing East Fife 4-0 in the first round of the Challenge Cup before beating Queen’s Park in their opening league match. The victories were followed by defeat to a strong Peterhead side in the League Cup. Such a result would normally have little bearing on the rest of the season, but the match was coloured by an altercation between McKeown and Greig Denham over the latter’s role in Bobby Linn’s first-half winning goal.

“I had a brilliant view of it,” remembers McKeown. “I was sitting up in the stand. I’d had a misdemeanour from the previous season and was serving a touchline ban. The Peterhead goal came from Greig not doing the right thing.

“I spoke to him at half-time about it. Some of the boys were giving him a sore time for it and Greig was a bit pent up – I told him to be quiet and said that the guys were right to question him. He basically told me to fuck off, so I told him to get his jersey off. That was it, end of story.”

The player was immediately substituted. After the incident, Denham failed to attend the team’s next training session. “I asked him to come in on the Saturday to speak to me,” continues McKeown. “He was pretty sheepish, and I explained to him that I wasn’t going to accept any of the players swearing at me or questioning me or whatever it may be. I said that if he had an issue with me, he should tell me in private. I told him: ‘If you tell me you’re on board, then good, because I want you here’.

“He was saying things like: ‘It’s going to be difficult for me to come back into the dressing room after that’. There were no grudges held – I told him I was just setting my standard, you now know what you can and can’t do. If the same thing comes up again, the same thing will happen – take off your jersey and leave.

“He came back in the next week and played on the following Saturday and it was put to bed. Unfortunately, it was probably a precursor to what happened later in the season.”

The League Cup defeat aside, Stenhousemuir’s form over the opening stages of the season was largely excellent. Although perhaps never the most tactically astute of managers, McKeown encouraged his charges to play a thrilling brand of offensive football, with handsome victories over Montrose and East Stirlingshire the reward for their attacking prowess. The team also developed a habit of scoring late, decisive goals: Paul McGrillen’s 89th minute penalty in a 1-1 draw at Arbroath; Colin Cramb’s last minute header to beat Queen’s Park; and McGrillen’s late winner in a midweek tie against Elgin City.

“There were two reasons for this,” asserts McKeown. “The pre-season we’d had was really good. The guys were fit – they were as fit as anything out there. It was something I prided myself in as a player and I wanted to make sure that my players were fit because you can only keep going and do the right things if you’re physically up to it. The guys had put in a really good shift in pre-season, so the 90 minutes wouldn’t be an issue for them.

“We picked players who were winners. We thought that these guys wanted to be the best they could be.”

“There was also a kind of self-pride. That was because we’d picked the players who we thought had it about them – they were winners. We thought that these guys wanted to be the best they could be. It’s an in-built thing. It didn’t take a huge amount from me at the sidelines to instill that in them. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. It doesn’t matter how much you coach somebody – if they’ve got that desire to win, then it doesn’t really matter.”

McKeown’s favourite moments from the 2005-06 season were the outstanding win over East Stirlingshire in the Scottish Cup, with Colin Cramb’s stunning volley securing progression after the first-half dismissals of McGrillen and Denham, and the extraordinary 3-2 victory against East Fife at New Bayview – trailing by two goals, the manager introduced a young David Templeton for his senior debut and the young forward assisted twice before scoring in the final minute to secure a celebrated result.

“I remember when he scored…” McKeown’s eyes light up. “Myself and Paul Smith were rolling around the track! And I mean rolling around the track – he jumped on top of me and knocked me over and the two of us were rolling around on the red ash just cuddling each other.”

Stenhousemuir would finish 2005 at the summit of the Third Division, six points ahead of nearest rivals Cowdenbeath. Their first signing of the New Year was Iain Diack from East Stirlingshire. Although the striker had enjoyed a reasonably prolific spell in a dismal Shire side, it seemed an unusual acquisition given the number of forwards already at the club.

“I thought he would offer something just slightly different to what we already had,” McKeown explains. “I just thought with Iain Diack, throw him into the mix and you’ve suddenly got a real athlete who can run in behind and who can score goals. He’d done really well that season for East Stirling.

“I was also probably half-looking at can he jag the other guys into thinking: ‘Well, he’s not getting my jersey’ and get another ten per cent out of them. He was a good player who could add something, even if it meant he was coming in and not actually playing – but his presence would ensure that the other guys were flushed up a bit.”

Diack would enjoy limited success over two spells at Ochilview. I ask McKeown if he believes the signing worked.

“I don’t think we lost anything by signing him,” he argues. “Was it as successful as I’d hoped it had been? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean to say it was detrimental to the team – bringing him in shouldn’t have meant that anything else dropped off.”

The Warriors started 2006 strongly, beating East Stirlingshire 5-0 on 2 January before embarking on a solid run of form, collecting ten points from their following five matches. After defeating Berwick Rangers 1-0 at home on 11 February, McKeown’s side had built a nine point advantage at the top of the table. From Christmas onwards, the manager had awarded a number of his players contract extensions, securing them for the 2006-07 campaign.

“I believed that some of those players would have organised deals elsewhere in May,” McKeown asserts. “Irrespective of where you are – whether you’re up into the Second Division or still in the Third – you’d be losing influential players. I was also a guy who, when given the reward of a new contract – and it happened with John Lambie, it happened with Queen of the South, it even happened when I was with Albion Rovers – I took a lift from it. I would say: ‘Don’t worry boss, I won’t let you down’.”

I find his last sentence strange. Given the wayward nature of a number of your players – players whose flaws you discussed earlier – why did you offer them contracts midway through the season?

He smiles ruefully. “Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. I know I’ve been criticised for handing out deals when the job was half-done. Even if the deals hadn’t been handed out and the job hadn’t been done, would I have changed much about it? Probably not. I would have probably signed most of the players anyway because they were good players.

“It might have sent some of them the message that the job was done, but it wasn’t intended to, I can assure you.”

Although Stenhousemuir maintained their lead at the top of the table from mid-February onwards, their level of performance lacked the usual flair and fluency from earlier in the season. The Warriors turned in an apathetic showing in the 1-2 home defeat to Elgin City, and could only scrape through consecutive fixtures with Albion Rovers by the odd goal. A 0-0 draw with Arbroath and a 1-2 defeat at East Fife were tempered by profitable victories over East Stirlingshire (7-0) and Montrose (5-1).

While the club experienced indifferent form between February and March, both Berwick Rangers and Cowdenbeath were resurgent, slowly creeping up in second and third place respectively. John Coughlin’s Berwick, a solid side built on pragmatism and professionalism, had overcome a difficult festive period to win six of out seven matches towards the end of March. Cowdenbeath, meanwhile, under the direction of Mixu Paatelainen, were in merciless form, winning seven in eight and scoring 29 goals in the process. The talented Finn had brought the best out of Dave Baikie’s players and augmented the squad with a creative, dynamic pool of attackers including David McKenna (on-loan from St Mirren), Liam Buchanan and the hulking Armand Oné. Paatelainen also called upon the services of his brothers Markus and Mikko, two outstanding players operating at a level far beneath their capabilities. Cowden were dangerous.

At the end of March, Stenhousemuir led Berwick by four points.

Craig G Telfer

Craig G Telfer

Craig is a keen supporter of Stenhousemuir and still harbours romantic notions towards the club's infamous 2005-06 season. His fictional heroes include Daniel Plainview, John Marston and Pat Mustard.

2 Comments

  • Reply July 31, 2013

    Rab Dickson

    Superb piece.
    Filled in a lot of empty spaces for me.

  • Reply August 4, 2013

    John Aitken

    From the other side of the world; – that was a really great insightful read. Not sure how long I’d survive back in Pembroke Street Larbert; but it is a buzz to hear the real inside info from the other side of the World in Oz.

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