“There was a coach in Perth, Athol Henderson, who suggested I get involved in coaching,” says Wolecki. “I went and got myself one of the earliest coaching qualifications, just after they had started doing the classes. Having been let go by Montrose, John Holt had ended up as a community coach at Tannadice, and he brought me in straight away. I have to pay tribute to United, for three years they developed me exceptionally well as a coach.
“Tommy McLean ended up as something of a mentor for me. I was involved as an observer on first team match days and learned a lot from him about match preparation, coaching, shaping the team, training. Tommy was very, very good at his job. People forget now how well he did at Motherwell and Dundee United. I’m still very grateful to both him and Jim McLean. The McLeans were really kind people who looked after folk behind the scenes. People didn’t see that side of them.
“I can remember sitting in the main stand at Tannadice one evening in August 1997,” he continues. “United were warming up for a home UEFA cup tie with Trabzonspor of Turkey. Jim McLean came and sat next to me as we watched the players warm up. He said to me ‘Your job here is to help us recruit the best kids in our area – we don’t want to miss out on another Eddie Wolecki.’ That’s all he said, and I was shocked.
“On the way home from the game I was torn between being really happy and crying. Very deftly, Jim had quietly told me that I’d had ability, but I’d blown my career as a player. I honestly feel that if I hadn’t had so many mishaps early on, I’d have grown into becoming a much better player under Jim and Tommy than I ever actually was at Brechin, Montrose and Deveronvale.”
Wolecki is still emotional as he recounts this story and there is no doubt his own self-perception of having not realised his potential as a player has been one of the major drivers in his coaching career.
Stints as a youth coach at both Brechin and Arbroath followed. At Gayfield, Wolecki was Head of Youth under legendary manager Dave Baikie, who took Arbroath from being the worst senior side in Scotland (1996-97) to the brink of promotion to the First Division. Wolecki worked full-time with the Arbroath youths and in a summer tournament in France, led his young side to the quarter-finals of a competition featuring some outstading European clubs.
“Arbroath had a French first teamer at the time, and he suggested to the organisers that the club’s youth team be invited,” says Wolecki. “We went over there as complete unknowns, in the tournament almost by accident, and we were expected to be cannon fodder. But we came through our qualifying group unbeaten, and in the next round we beat PSV Eindhoven. We lost in the quarters to Dynamo Kiev, who went on to win the tournament.”
Wolecki had great respect for Baikie’s achievements at Arbroath and was shocked to hear that the manager had resigned during 1998-99 after a dispute with the committee over money for signing a player. Unbeknownst to Wolecki at the time, Baikie had used these brinkmanship tactics before in his stint at Gayfield, but this time, under chairman John Christison, the committee called his bluff.
“After that, John Brownlie came in to replace Baikie, and I’ve never felt so unwelcome in my life,” he recalls. “He wasn’t in the least bit interested in my work or the youths. He wanted his own people and to concentrate on the first team. I tried hard with him, but he just never took me on at all. He was a traditionalist who belittled players in training. I detested the way he worked compared to Baikie.
“Soon, the committee came to me and said that there was no money to keep me on anymore. I was happy enough to leave, to be honest. It was a shame – Baikie had done a great job there and had the foresight to invest in youth.”
Between 2001 and 2005, Eddie Wolecki made a name for himself as manager of Lochee United, turning the club from permanent relegation candidates into the winners of the Tayside Premier League and Superleague. His side also finished as runners-up in the Junior Cup after losing the final at Tannadice 0-2 to Tayport. With such an impressive stint in re-building Lochee United into a major threat for honours in the juniors, it was little surprise when he was invited to return to the senior game and his old haunt – Links Park.
Montrose had struggled badly under Henry Hall in the first half of the 2005-06 season. The manager had performed well in the previous two years, building a fantastic unbeaten run in the second half of 2003-04 and had kept the Gable Endies within touching distance of the play-offs during the “Gretna season” of 2004-05 with a talented, but maverick and unpredictable squad. Hall was eventually obliged to resign after a truly abysmal 2-6 reverse against Des McKeown’s Stenhousemuir at Ochilview in November 2005. The result had followed several poor and tactically incoherent performances at Links Park.
“I went in there and immediately saw that huge changes were needed both on and off the park,” Wolecki asserts. “I don’t want to criticise Henry as he’d had good results in previous seasons there but for whatever reason, it had gone stale. I had my last Lochee training session on the Monday night at Gussie Park, and there were 20 lads there, all keen to work very hard. The following night for my first Montrose training session, also at Gussie Park, we had only 12 players – guys in Dundee and Ayr United training kit, lads from Edinburgh who were only allowed to train once a week by arrangement – it was a total shambles.
“I was also under instructions from the board to halve the wage bill over the rest of that season and cut back severely on player expenses. So, I immediately decided to recruit local players only, and the lads from Edinburgh and Glasgow left. They went not because they weren’t good players, but for financial reasons. Some people didn’t like the way I worked, but that’s the way it had to be”.
In the festive season of 2005-06 there was a huge exodus of familiar faces from Links Park as Jim Butter, Neil Stephen, Elliot Smith, Kerr Dodds, and Willie Martin left the club. They were replaced by untried younger players from the Dundee juniors – the likes of James Russell and Robert Smith – and a couple of older heads with league experience in Gary Middleton and Iain McLeod.
“In retrospect,” says Wolecki, “I changed everything far too quickly. I should probably have stuck with most of that squad for the rest of the season and had my clear out in the summer. But with lack of money key, I felt I had to move folk on straight away and bring people in who were local and playing for smaller wages.”
The main focus for Wolecki was rebuilding the relations between club and community which had atrophied for a number of years, and the new manager was keen to engage the supporters groups as soon as he could. He also set about establishing new and productive links with Montrose youths.
“Everything there was about building for the long term. Results were indifferent but we began to stabilise a bit. We beat East Fife and we had five draws in a row in January. People said we were boring to watch but I was trying to get rid of the culture of easily accepted defeat. We were beaten 0-2 at Central Park by Mixu Paatelainen’s Cowdenbeath – who went on to win the title – and Mixu said we had played like a side in the play-off places and that his side had found it a tough game. Little things like that encouraged me.”
Although Montrose finished the season in eighth position, Wolecki was concentrating on building a much fitter, younger team to compete in 2006-07. Then everything changed for him again. “I got a phonecall,” he recalls, “telling me that Kenny Black wanted to invest a lot of money in the club, and would I be prepared to recommend him. I knew a little bit about him as a youth coach, so I agreed. With hindsight, it was the biggest mistake of my professional career.”