It is a film without a third act. The credits have rolled, the projector has been switched off too soon and the patrons have been asked to vacate the cinema.
Paul Hartley’s sudden resignation from Alloa Athletic on Saturday evening was deeply disappointing. Disappointing because he did so in a fit of pique after losing to Dumbarton. Disappointing because he did so when his team needed him the most. Disappointing because he didn’t see it out until the end of the season. Outwardly at least, there had been little indication of his dissatisfaction at the club, and the manner of his departure has left a sour taste.
Hartley’s managerial career has been played out almost exclusively on his own terms – his two-and-a-half years at Recreation Park have been an unblemished success – but when the standard of his side’s performance began to decline, culminating with the 1-5 home demolition by the Sons, it was clear that something was amiss. It was their third loss in as many matches, a run of form that Hartley had never experienced. The manager had also never seen his side concede five goals at home before. The defeat, he claimed, played no part in his decision to step down.
No doubt he will be accused of being a quitter, a sunshine boy, someone unprepared to muck in when the going gets tough. It jars with the narrative of the talented, precocious young manager who swooped in to transform the fortunes of an ailing club with no players and guide them to consecutive promotions. The end of the second act, where the protagonist is at their lowest ebb, is where it all concludes.
After taking charge of Alloa in the summer of 2011, Hartley diligently assembled a hardy core of undervalued youngsters (Scott Bain and Ryan McCord had been discarded by Aberdeen and Dundee United respectively) and old warhorses (Darren Young and Robbie Winters), many of whom still remain at the club today. The remainder of the squad was fleshed out with a number of talented loan signings sourced from the SPL. Some may have crabbed at a perceived overuse of the loan system, but the manager was entitled to use his contacts and intrinsic knowledge of Scottish youth football to the best of his ability. It was a profitable tactic throughout his tenure, no more so than when he secured St Johnstone’s Stevie May, who scored 19 goals in 22 matches in Hartley’s debut season.
Indeed, 2011-12 was a wonderful campaign. Over the course of the year, the team broke a longstanding club record by remaining 15 games unbeaten, and twice equalled the record of seven consecutive wins. They were frequently thrilling and won the league title long before the season’s end. The same upward momentum would propel Alloa into the newly-minted Championship via the play-offs the following year.
This is not an uncommon feat – since league reconstruction in 1994-95, seven teams have achieved consecutive promotions from the fourth to the second tier (including the unglamorous Brechin City and Stranraer) – but what marked out Hartley as a manager of distinction was the manner in which his side acquitted themselves in the Championship. In the basement leagues, they were cavalier rabble-rousers who tore through their opponents with gusto but to survive in such an ultra-competitive division, Hartley was required to recalibrate his side into something more tangible. Where there was once wild abandon, the team is now built on selfless pragmatism and the stoic mantra of all for one and one for all, with the manager favouring a cautious midfield diamond instead of a more expressive 4-4-2. Even when the side lacked creativity in the final third, a talented upstart like Derek Riordan – who had trained with the club for more than ten weeks, even offering to play for free – was not recruited. There are no chiefs in this team, only Indians.
The levels of professionalism at the club, especially for a part-time team, appeared superior to those around them. It gave them a noticeable advantage in the Second and Third Division, and the preparation and conditioning was vital in allowing them to compete with this season’s full-time opponents. The players would go through pre-match, half-time and full-time drills and resistance running and makeshift ice baths (essentially wheelie bins filled with cold water) were commonplace. At other clubs, substitutes will often spend the half-time interval languidly pinging crossfield passes at one another, hitting shots into a youth goalkeeper or indulging bouts of head tennis; at Alloa, they’re put through vigorous circuits with a fitness coach. The players too would often return from their break early and work on a series of aerobic exercises before resuming play. Against Hamilton Academical at New Douglas Park on 7 December, the hosts returned to the pitch immediately before the restart; tellingly, an invigorated Alloa scored the only goal of the game through Darryl Meggat in the 47th minute.
While Hartley’s default approach of contain and counter was often successful (and certainly nowhere near as turgid as his detractors suggested), he was unable to alter his strategy accordingly if the game was not going in his favour. Not once this season have Alloa recovered from a losing position, contriving to lose each of the nine league matches in which they’ve found themselves trailing. They last won on 14 December, dismissing a beleaguered Greenock Morton side 2-0 before embarking on their winless sequence. A 0-0 draw at Falkirk was sandwiched between slender one-goal defeats to Dundee and Cowdenbeath, and was subsequently followed by a dismal showing against Queen of the South at Palmerston – the match ended with Hartley dismissed to the stand after an altercation with the referee. Although Dumbarton have been Alloa’s equivalent of kryptonite in recent seasons, the fashion in which they dismantled the Wasps was particularly ruthless. By this point, Hartley’s mind was made up.
Speaking on Monday night’s BBC Sportsound podcast, Hartley stated he had intended to resign at the end of the season anyway but had found himself frustrated with the limitations of a part-time team and his inability to work with his players on a day-to-day basis. He also said it would have been unfair for him to offer them contracts when he would have had no part in coaching them next term. Or maybe his head was just turned by the recent speculation linking him with the Inverness Caledonian Thistle job. Regardless, Hartley will no doubt find employment when the next appropriate full-time position arises. In the meantime, Paddy Connolly, his assistant, will take charge of Alloa until a permanent successor can be found. The post will not be short of applicants – chairman Mike Mulraney says he has been inundated already, while Darren Young, one of Hartley’s most trusted acolytes, has declared his interest in taking on the role.
Before Christmas at least, Alloa looked as though they were shifting the perceptions of what part-time clubs in the second tier were capable of. They sat in fifth place, six points from Dundee at the summit and on the cusp of a play-off place. Semi-professional sides challenging in the division were there to do nothing more than make up the numbers, a gimme for the full-time teams, before shuffling back down to the seaside leagues. That might no longer the case: with the correct management, playing personnel and preparation, competing in the upper echelons is now entirely possible. Alloa, just two points from the play-off places, could still yet have a successful season. So too could Dumbarton, who currently occupy fourth.
Or maybe Hartley had realised he had taken the club into a cul-de-sac. That this was as good as it was ever going to get. That surviving was all that should be expected. We will not know how it might have ended. There is to be no third act in this story.
Many thanks go to Craig Anderson at @SPLStats for providing a number of facts and statistics which went into this article.