Des McKeown: Once in a Lifetime

“April is the cruellest month” began T.S. Eliot’s seminal The Waste Land, and never has the phrase been more applicable than the April of 2006. Stenhousemuir began the month with five league matches remaining, including crucial ties with Cowdenbeath and Berwick Rangers, as well as a Queen’s Park side looking to finish the season in the final play-off place.

It was the home tie against Cowdenbeath which set in motion the series of events that would derail the Warriors’ season. Despite Jim Mercer’s header giving the Warriors the lead after 37 minutes, Dougie Hill’s quickfire equaliser and Liam Buchanan’s strike at the beginning of the second half gave the visitors a hugely deserved victory. It might have ended 1-2, but only Cowden’s profligacy prevented the match from finishing with a far higher score-line. The defeat cut Stenhousemuir’s lead at the top of the table to a single point, and tellingly, it badly affected the players.

“That’s when we started to wobble,” McKeown winces. “When we went down to Berwick and got battered, that’s when I knew we had a real issue because it looked as though the players had lost all confidence.”

The Warriors were thrashed at Shielfield and lost 0-3. Two things happened after the match: Stenhousemuir surrendered their position at the top of the table to Cowdenbeath, and Colin Cramb never played for the club again. The striker was substituted on 38 minutes after the recurrence of a long-standing hamstring complaint, but instead of watching the remainder of the game from the grandstand, Cramb nipped into the nearby social club to watch the Grand National.

“That was no use to me,” laments McKeown. “I wasn’t told that he’d been drinking, but it’s nothing to do with whether he was drinking or not – he shouldn’t have been there. That’s the bottom line.

“We had a board meeting on the Monday night and I advised them I didn’t want him anywhere near the club. My attitude was that he should have been supporting his team-mates, the way that they would have been supporting him. The Grand National starts at 4:15pm every year, am I right? I didn’t take too kindly to that and he was advised not to come back to the club.”

How did Cramb react to being told to stay away?

“In Colin Cramb’s own inimitable style. ‘Aye, okay.’ He questioned one of the directors who was also in the bar and asked me: ‘So you’re taking the word of somebody who was in there pished?’ I said that I don’t need to take anyone else’s word – the director’s not part of my jurisdiction. If the director’s in there, that’s for the other directors to deal with, not me. It’s the players I’m interested in.

“So that’s what happened. After that, it was put to bed and he was just told to stay clear.”

With the championship slipping from their grasp, Stenhousemuir went on to lose their third consecutive match in a 1-2 home defeat to Queen’s Park. Stevie Canning, a player making his first start of the year after breaking his leg in pre-season, scored twice for the Spiders, his second, vital goal coming deep into injury time. With Berwick dropping points against East Fife, Cowden increased their lead at the top of the table.

Despite a relatively comfortable victory in the penultimate league match against Elgin City, there was to be more drama in Stenhousemuir’s season. As McKeown returned from competing in the London Marathon on 23 April, he received a phone call from the Daily Record’s Gordon Parks. The journalist was looking for comment on a forthcoming article about the unrest and infighting at Ochilview.

“I said no, because whoever’s telling you that story is telling you a load of crap,” remembers McKeown. “And it was Greig Denham.

“I said to Gordon that if he printed the story, then he’d have to tell Greig he’s persona non grata after this. We’re finished. Because that’s not right, you don’t talk about the dressing room in the papers whether it was at Stenny or elsewhere.”

The article was published the following day. Denham stated that the fractious nature of the dressing room had cost Stenhousemuir the championship. The defender went on to accuse his team-mates of a lack professionalism, claiming a number of them had indulged in drinking sessions before crucial matches. Just what did you make of the article?

“The article was so far from the truth it was frightening.”

“I thought it was incredible,” McKeown says, still astonished. “I thought it was so far from the truth it was frightening. I challenged Greig over it. I spoke to him over the phone initially and asked him what it was all about – he was taking it all the way back to the first game of the season! I think a couple of the guys including Tommy Sinclair, John Paul McBride and Paul McGrillen had had a beer after training on the Thursday. And Greig was raising this issue in April saying it was unprofessional!

“Then he raised the John Paul McBride issue with me. I told him it was alright Greig, JP’s got an illness (and it effectively is an illness) and I’ve decided to stick by him. I said: ‘Tell me when else the guys have been out there drunk, tell me when they’ve been out on a Thursday night’. He said: ‘No, no, that Queen’s Park game at the start of the season’. That was the extent of it.”

The incident still rankles with McKeown. “I had no idea he was as unhappy as that. What’s happened is – and stand me on this one – he’ll have been speaking to Gordon Parks as a friend and Gordon will have seen the opportunity to get a story. After he got my take on it, Gordon will have been reluctant to run with it but because he’d already spoken to the editorial staff at the Record, they published it. To this day, I think Greig and Gordon will have regretted it.”

Despite having told Denham he was no longer welcome at Ochilview, McKeown decided to consult with his players as to whether or not the defender should be allowed to return to the team.

“He didn’t actually criticise me,” points out McKeown. “He was actually saying he was feeling sorry for me. The people he had criticised were the players, so ultimately, I thought they should have a say as to whether or not they wanted him back.

“If they had done, I would have needed to make a decision based on that, but the players said under no circumstances did they want him back. It coincided with what I thought – I wouldn’t have wanted him at the club after he’d been out bitching about his team-mates. Only one of them – who shall remain nameless, not as a criticism, but for his own benefit – said he didn’t have an issue with Greig. So, as a result, we decided that was it, end of story.”

I ask about some the rumours to have emanated from the club at the time. What about Denham’s stories about the fighting in the dressing room?

“Fighting in the dressing room?” he repeats. “What, twice?! I can tell you, in every season I played professional football there’s been more than two fights in the dressing room. Some of them even needed medical attention in terms of stitches and stuff. That’s what happens! Whether it’s right or wrong is a different story but that’s what happens.”

What about the story that you got too close to some of the senior players?

“Who told you that?”

It was a story at the time.

“I’ve already told you, Greig Denham was told to take his strip off after the Peterhead game and Colin Cramb was told to stay away. Those were the experienced guys. Never in a million years did that happen. It was nothing to do with being too friendly – everybody was dealt with in the same way.”

Cowdenbeath went on to win the 2005-06 Third Division championship, edging beyond Berwick Rangers by virtue of a superior goal difference. Stenhousemuir finished the season in third and stumbled into the play-offs, eventually losing 0-1 on aggregate to Berwick in the semi-final. It is a crude question but one I must ask: how did you feel at the end of the season?

He pauses. “Gutted. I think about it every single day of my life. Still. What might have been… I was absolutely gutted because I’d never won anything as a player and I was absolutely hell-bent on trying to deliver a title. It would have been Stenhousemuir’s first… And it all came falling about our ears. It was devastating.”

McKeown began the 2006-07 season by undertaking another extensive rebuilding exercise. Despite having agreed new terms in January, Colin Cramb and Greig Denham were moved on to Stirling Albion and Linlithgow Rose respectively (in doing so, the former would become the first player to compete in every senior league in Scotland and England) while amongst others, Paul McGrillen and Jim Mercer were also released.

McKeown brought in John Baird on loan from St Mirren, Queen of the South’s Brian “Eddie” McLaughlin and Paul and Mark Tyrell – Bucket and Spade – from East Stirlingshire. His most contentious move was the recruitment of Mark Cowan, David Murie, Kevin McLeish, Gordon Connelly and the returning Gareth Hutchison from Berwick Rangers. These players would be known as “The Berwick Five”.

“These guys had been outstanding for them over the course of the previous season,” explains McKeown. “I didn’t think there’d be any reason why they wouldn’t be outstanding for us. They were guys I could trust – dependable, honest professionals.”

The new recruits failed to bed successfully into the team. Despite a reasonably promising opening with seven points from their first three matches (including a 1-0 victory over Berwick at Shielfield), Stenhousemuir huffed and puffed their way through the new season. McKeown believes the club was in a malaise.

“The atmosphere was poisonous,” he says. “It was absolutely poisonous because we’d failed the previous season and the supporters were probably still angry about the way it had transpired. There had been no expectation, or little expectation the previous two years and now everybody was expecting, everyone was baying for success and we needed to deliver.”

The low point of the season – and indeed, the worst point of McKeown’s professional career – was the 0-5 capitulation to East Stirlingshire at Firs Park on 22 August. Before the match, the last time the Shire had scored five goals in a game was against Albion Rovers on 19 December 1995. Even more galling, Marc McKenzie, a player discarded by Stenhousemuir in January, scored a sublime hat-trick.

“I think we expected just to turn up and win,” McKeown groans. “East Stirling wanted it more than us – you can’t just start in first gear and then jump up into fourth. You need to go through your gears. We didn’t go through our gears. If anything, we probably went into reverse.”

Between September and mid-October, Stenhousemuir won four matches out of seven but the negativity surrounding the club had worn McKeown down. During a lamentable 0-2 defeat to Elgin City at Borough Briggs on 28 October, the manager was accosted by a drunken supporter who subjected him to a volley of sustained abuse throughout the second half. “He was so drunk, I couldn’t even tell you what he was saying to me. But I just thought fuck it, I don’t need this and the club don’t need this.” On the journey home, McKeown had made his decision to resign as manager.

“The place needed exorcising from the previous season’s failings. And the exorcism would only come from me leaving.”

“The club needed a freshness and the only way it was going to happen was if I stepped away from it,” he explains. “The place needed exorcising from the previous season’s failings. And the exorcism would only come from me leaving. That was my opinion at the time.”

McKeown consulted with a number of friends, including then-Dundee United manager Craig Levein, who cautioned him against making any rash decisions. He remembers: “Craig told me that other people would be desperate for the Stenny job. Remember – that’s what you’re giving up. I said: ‘I don’t know if I’m desperate enough to be in the job’. That was the stage I’d got to. There were other people who wanted the job more than I wanted it.”

He approached the board of directors the following Monday and tendered his resignation; it was unanimously accepted. McKeown was quickly replaced by Campbell Money and the club staggered through the rest of the season, eventually finishing in seventh place. Berwick Rangers, meanwhile, won the championship with ease.

“I don’t regret leaving,” he says. “It was the biggest weight off my shoulders ever. I felt about three stones lighter as I skipped around the New York Marathon the next weekend.”

After leaving Stenhousemuir, McKeown was encouraged to apply for vacant positions at a number of clubs, but declined their offers. “I’ve got a good balance to my life at the moment and I’m happy getting my football fix through the journalism,” he says.

We talk about football management, its rigours, its difficulties and the impact it had on his personal life. Having managed a team through such a challenging period – both on and off the pitch – I wonder how McKeown was ever able to successfully balance his various commitments.

“Whether it’s amateur, junior, juvenile or senior, there’s no such thing as a part-time position,” he says wearily. “It just doesn’t happen. It’s not a gripe, that’s just the way it is. You’re a babysitter, you’re a social worker… There just aren’t enough hours in the day because it’s in your mind all the time: did I do the right thing?

“I used to go out on the Sunday for a long training run and sometimes I could run for 20 miles (more than two-and-a-half hours of running) and spend the entire time re-running the game over in my mind. I’d think about the decisions I’d made, thinking about my team selection, thinking about how I was going to do it next time, thinking about next week’s opponents, and the time would go like that.” He clicks his fingers sharply to make his point.

Did your management career ever impact on your family life?

“Ask my wife that question!” he laughs. “She’ll tell you. I wasn’t there. Family probably played third-fiddle to my job and my football. In fact, my job probably played second-fiddle to my football. That’s just the way it is. And it’s not just Des McKeown, that’s just the way it is. There’s a hundred guys out there who could tell you the exact same story.

“My wife was really supportive. I tried to spend as much time with the kids as I possibly could but even that wasn’t a huge amount. Since I’ve not been involved from a managerial point of view, the balance to my life is far better. The question of how you get that balance… Well, something’s got to give and rightly or wrongly – and it’s not just me that faced it – family doesn’t get the time it deserves.”

Despite the acrimony surrounding his departure from Ochilview and the insistence he is no longer interested in management, a desire still smoulders within McKeown to involve himself in the day-to-day running of a football team.

“Do I want to get back into it at this stage?” he ponders. “No. But if I was given a caretaker manager’s job for one night, would I want to get back into it? You better believe it. That’s the way it is. When you’re in, you’re in. When you’re out… Well, I’m just trying to stop myself wanting to get back in.

“I don’t miss it at all but I do know if I was exposed to it again and someone asked me to be the caretaker for a few weeks, I’d need one night in the dressing room and that would be me, full-tilt back into being a manager. I know for a fact I would get sucked back in.”

The interview finishes and we shake hands. He has been generous with his time, speaking with me for more than an hour. As we leave the table, I am suddenly overcome with excitement and begin to tell him all about the 2005-06 season, the thrilling journey which despite its horrid anti-climax, still seems quite incredible.

It was brilliant fun following the team that year and it was great to watch and so much fun and all my friends would go and you would never need to worry where someone was on a Saturday because they would be at the football and what about the last minute goals and what about Colin Cramb and David Templeton’s debut and what about the time I skipped University to go to Elgin on a Tuesday night and see us win 2-1 and Mowgli scoring that last minute winner we didn’t get home till two in the morning and what about Cramb’s goal against the Shire in the cup when he said ohyafuckeryouseareout before he hit it it was one of the best goals I’ve ever seen in the flesh and remember Joe McAlpine’s cross the Rolls Royce of crosses and and and…

McKeown smiles. “I’m just sorry we couldn’t have won you that championship.”

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.

Leave a Reply