Airdrieonians find themselves turning and turning in a widening gyre. The current campaign has been uniformly catastrophic and, after losing five of their previous six matches, the club find themselves propping up League 1 with eight points.
Such was the gravity of their plight that manager Jimmy Boyle was relieved of his position last week, bringing his long association with the Diamonds to an end. Boyle, formerly the club’s head of youth development, had succeeded Kenny Black on an interim basis in July 2010 and was eventually given the role permanently in September 2011. An affable, good-natured character, Boyle did a lot of good at Airdrie, including guiding the club through a difficult transition from full-time to part-time status and bringing through a core of talented young players into the first team.
However, the club have been in deep decline of late. The dearth of requisite quality and the lack of preparation perhaps accounted for their inability to compete in last season’s First Division, but it did not explain their sustained level of dreadful performance. A reasonably promising start gave way to an appalling series of results: Airdrie won twice between November and the end of the season (oddly enough, both victories came against Dunfermline Athletic and both were achieved at East End Park).
The 2013-14 campaign promised better. Boyle’s transfer business over the summer was conducted promptly and the squad looked, on paper at least, capable of challenging for a play-off position. Three months late, however, and such notions have been soundly dismissed: this team is far more concerned with relegation than glancing upwards at fourth place. After their performance in the 0-2 home defeat to Forfar Athletic – described by the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser’s Colin Paterson as “one of the worst I’ve ever seen” – it was clear that things could not continue as they were. On 20 October, Boyle was quietly dismissed.
When appointing a new manager, supporters were keen the club break with tradition by giving the role to someone not connected with the club (Sandy Stewart, Black and Boyle were all promoted in-house). Billy Reid and Kenny Shiels were strongly linked with the position (the former was even seen at a recent reserve match) but the post was eventually awarded to Gary Bollan. Bollan had been out of work since leaving Livingston in February 2012, but his appointment was roundly applauded, if social media and internet message boards are the barometer of supporters’ opinion. Surely some revelation is at hand – after all, he has certainly been successful at this level in the past.
Bollan took charge of Livingston in the summer of 2009. He joined following their demotion to the Third Division after the club entered admission for a second time under the careless Angelo Massone. With the Italian shyster ousted by a new board, Bollan’s brief was straightforward: take the full-time team back to the First Division as quickly as possible while bringing through young academy graduates. In order to achieve his objectives, the manager was furnished with a handsome budget (an outlay far greater than any subsequent managers have been afforded) and began the 2009-10 season with a curious mix of talented youths and experienced SFL players – Andy Halliday, Keaghan Jacobs and Jason Talbot were supplemented by Roddy McKenzie, Robbie Winters and Armand Oné.
Despite a troubling start – Livi were beaten in four of their five opening fixtures – a 3-2 victory over Elgin City in mid-September precipitated a fine run of results and by the end of October, the team had clambered to the summit of the league. They would fix themselves there for the remainder of the season. Of course, the team had significant advantages over their part-time opposition, but Bollan was able to harden their resolve and maintain their focus over the course of the year. Utilising an orthodox 4-4-2 replete with two pacey wingers and a philosophy of contain and counter, the side were a potent prospect; the championship was secured in mid-April.
If 2009-10 had been relatively straightforward, the following year was infinitely more comfortable. Their season in the Second Division was marked by excellence: unbeaten at home and with their key youth players developing further, the league was won with five games remaining. Such was their prowess that Livingston were expected to re-establish themselves as a solid second tier team the following year.
Indeed, it is Bollan’s spell managing the club in the First Division that deserves the greatest scrutiny. This was the first time during his tenure that the club were competing against equals: after two years of purgatory sparring with the country’s lesser sides, they were finally punching their weight. Bollan’s squad was largely unchanged from when he took over – the same core of young players made up the bulk of his team and one or two graduates (including the emerging Stefan Scougall) – but they seemed unable to translate their form from the previous year into the new season.
Results lacked consistency and the team went for more than three months without a victory at Almondvale. Bollan’s tactics rarely deviated from his original 4-4-2 template – at its best, the system was pleasingly functional but at its worst, it was little more than long balls punted towards striker Kenny Deuchar. The manager’s approach was becoming stale, but he was perhaps vindicated by a quick glance at the league table – Livingston concluded January in sixth place with 26 points, seven from the foot of the table and five from the relegation play-off place.
On 5 February 2012, Bollan was dismissed as Livingston manager. From an external perspective, it seemed to be an outrageous decision – the club were sacking a manager who had followed his original brief by returning to the club to the First Division and maintaining their competitiveness within the league. His removal suddenly looked even more ridiculous when, mere minutes after his sacking, Bollan contacted Radio Scotland to express his hurt and anger. “We were told that the reason for the sacking was not having young kids in the first team,” he said.
His explanation was disingenuous and a gross oversimplification of the issue. As touched on above, when Bollan was appointed at Livingston, he was expected to win the Third and Second Division while promoting academy graduates into the first team. The club had enjoyed success in the past in developing and selling on talented youngsters, with Graeme Dorrans, Leigh Griffiths and Robert Snodgrass notable examples of their policy. Such a strategy was crucial to the club’s income stream, but it was something Bollan appeared to have little interest in doing. The manager rarely communicated with the club’s head of youth development, nor did he attend many youth fixtures (Bollan was based in the Dundee area, and his location made such arrangements troublesome). New players were rarely encouraged into the first team and the existing pool had not progressed as expected – with the exception of Andy Halliday who joined Middlesbrough in the summer of 2010, no offers were made on any player. There were also reports than Bollan had requested youth team funding be diverted to improving the first team squad instead.
The relationship between manager and board was no longer compatible and a separation was required. Livi went on to appoint John Hughes as Bollan’s successor and the new manager implemented an eye-catching, possession based approach.
It is a pertinent question: given his success at Livingston, why has Gary Bollan found it so difficult to gain employment in football management? Since February 2012, there have been 29 managerial changes in Scottish football (including three at Almondvale) – it seems difficult to believe that his acrimonious departure from Livi would have tainted his future prospects, but it is perplexing that he has been overlooked on numerous occasions (vacancies at Brechin City and Dumbarton immediately spring to mind).
Regardless, the manager faces a monumental task after taking charge of Airdrieonians. During the weekend’s dire 0-1 home defeat against Ayr United, Bollan sat in the dugout while coach Paul Lovering handled affairs and he will have understood the challenge ahead of him. He begins his tenure with back-to-back away ties with Rangers: the first in the Scottish Cup, the second in a league meeting on 9 November. The Diamonds then take on Dunfermline at home before finishing the month with a trip to Stranraer.
Bollan was a qualified success at Livingston – with the resources at his disposal, winning the Third and Second Division titles was the very least he should have achieved. How he acquits himself at Airdrie, a club on a downward curve, will perhaps be the greatest indication of just how good a manager he is, his hour come round at last.