From the sturdy terracing of the Cemetery End, to the colourful David H Will Stand, to the proud hedge, Glebe Park is the most picturesque ground in Scottish football. On the cusp of a new season in particular, with its bright, immaculate pitch and an enthusiastic crowd watching on, it looks especially resplendent. The humble environs are the perfect home for a club of Brechin City’s ambitions – a parochial club which values its strong links with its loyal support and the local community.
For the best part of a decade, they were the best part-time club in the country. With former players including Gary Twigg, Iain Russell, Darren Smith and Rory McAllister, Brechin were a byword for solidity, stability and spirit. Although never really good enough for the rigours of First Division football, they were often one of the best teams in Division Two. They were bigger, faster and stronger than your team; they were just better.
Until very recently, that is. Over the last three seasons, Brechin City have been in steady decline. This seems difficult to believe, particularly as a quick glance at the league tables might tell you something to the contrary. With the exception of last season’s eighth place finish, it would appear as though the club have been performing to expectation – after all, they finished the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons in the play-off positions, reaching the final on both occasions. However, to simply look at the league standings alone is to completely miss the point.
Since the departure of Michael O’Neill in December 2008, poor managerial appointments have undermined the club’s foundations and threatened to fracture the solid relationships with supporters and local businesses. Under Jim Duffy and then Jim Weir, the club have regressed from perennial title challengers to back-markers, particularly over the last 12 months. Only since the recent installation of Ray McKinnon as manager have the club looked likely to begin to regain their former status as a club of strong stature.
It was the popular O’Neill, now manager of Northern Ireland, who developed Brechin’s reputation as the best part-time team in Scotland. With a system built around talented players like Twigg, Russell and Smith, his Brechin side played an attractive brand of high-tempo, fluid football. After an impressive start to the 2008-09 season, it was little surprise when O’Neill was headhunted to replace Pat Scully at League of Ireland side Shamrock Rovers in December 2008. The club kindly released O’Neill from his contract.
The Brechin board were patient in deciding on his successor and took almost four weeks to make their decision. On 9 January 2009, it was announced that Jim Duffy had been appointed as manager. Chairman Ken Ferguson hailed the former Dundee and Hibernian boss and claimed his experience – both as a player and as a manager – would be vital to his club’s progression.
Duffy acquitted himself well as a part-time manager and quickly identified quality players to improve his squad. His first major signing was Rory McAllister from Inverness Caledonian Thistle and such was the player’s impact during his two-and-a-half year spell with the Angus club, he is now regarded as one of their best players of all time. The shrewd acquisition of Barry Smith was also warmly received and after fleshing his squad out with a handful of loan signings, Brechin were able to maintain third place in the league. Although not good enough to threaten Raith Rovers and Ayr United at the top of the table, they were too strong for the chasing pack. Their inability to compete at the summit of the division was telling as the club were soundly beaten in both legs of the play-off semi-final by Ayr.
A manager should always look to improve his squad at every opportunity but while Duffy’s recruitment policy in January had paid dividends, his signings the following summer lacked imagination. He ensured the core of O’Neill’s side were retained for the 2009-10 season but his additions did little to improve the squad. Paul McLean aside, most of his transfers failed to excite. Duffy’s scouting network also appeared to extend no further than the Daily Record’s Gies a Game initiative, with four players drafted in from the subsequent trials. More loan signings, all with varying degrees of quality, were also recruited. Temporary transfers are essential for any SFL club but to dilute the squad with large numbers can destabilise the balance of the side and upset the relationship between players and the support.
Despite concerns over some of the players in the squad, Brechin began the season brightly – McAllister in particular – and by October they had clambered into the play-off positions.
However, the campaign began to unravel in the weeks prior to a Scottish Cup tie with Wick Academy. The club had drawn their previous five league matches and a professional, committed performance against the Highland League side to correct their wayward form was expected. For the best part of the match, Brechin were comprehensively overrun, losing 2-4 until a strike from Rory McAllister and Charlie King’s 85th minute equaliser prevented acute embarrassment. Wick were efficiently dispatched in the replay at Glebe Park three days later, but there was discontent about the approach to the first match at Harmsworth Park. Some believed Duffy – and by extension, his players – arrogantly assumed that simply turning up would be good enough to win the tie. From this point on, supporters began to mistrust his management.
Whereas Brechin played with cohesion and flair under O’Neill, Duffy’s side could seem inhibited and staggeringly ponderous. With an over-reliance on McAllister for invention, players would often aim long balls towards the striker’s direction, with only moderate success.
Duffy’s ability to sufficiently motivate his players was also questionable. On the touchline, an animated, energetic manager will not necessarily improve his team’s performance, but some form of enthusiasm is at least required. Duffy spent the majority of matches leaning against the dugout with his hands in his pockets, looking uninterested. Occasionally, he would offer encouragement by way of a “push forward” hand gesture; the Brechin support began mimicking the motion whilst chanting: “Let’s all do the Duffy! Let’s all do the Duffy!”
Although the club occupied fourth position for the majority of the season, fans were unimpressed by Duffy’s management. Given their relatively solid league form, neutral supporters found it difficult to understand the resentment shown towards him but once again, to look at the table alone was to miss the point. The consensus was that Duffy seemed too arrogant and ignorant to fully grasp the requirements for managing a community club, and many felt he valued his media commitments more than his role with Brechin. After the openness and loquaciousness of O’Neill, some found it difficult to reconcile with the dour Duffy – there was a strong feeling that he felt he was too good for the club.
Brechin finished the season in the play-off position, reaching the final after two credible victories over Airdrie United. The club were tied with Cowdenbeath and despite a reasonable competent performance in the 0-0 draw at Central Park, they were easily turned over 0-3 in the second leg. Duffy’s resignation six days later was met with little more than indifference.
The Brechin directors moved quickly to replace him and on 24 May 2010 announced Jim Weir as the club’s new manager. Given his managerial record, it was a decidedly left-field appointment from a normally progressive board. Despite a relatively successful period in at Montrose, his seven-month spell in charge of Arbroath had been quite disastrous.
At the beginning of November 2009, the Red Lichties were sitting in ninth place in Division Two after 13 games. Weir had replaced John McGlashan after the latter’s inability to address the club’s rotten series of results. Weir’s tenure began poorly, with his side winning once in his first ten matches (one of the defeats included a 0-1 loss in the Scottish Cup to Irvine Meadow, the first time a Junior side had beaten an SFL club in the competition’s history). Despite a reasonably spirited second half to the season, Weir was unable to correct the club’s downward trajectory and they were ultimately relegated on the final day of the season, losing to Forfar in the play-off finals. His appointment at Brechin was bemusing.
It has perhaps become slightly fashionable on this site to malign Weir and criticise his management (particularly the dire manner in which Brechin’s 2011-12 season played out), but to overlook his first season at Glebe Park would be grossly unfair. At his first AGM, he spoke of the importance of the links between the club and the community and looked to reinstall the civic pride which Duffy had neglected. The calibre of Weir’s initial signings also excited supporters – Craig Molloy and David McKenna were canny players, while the acquisition of Ewan Moyes and Calum Booth, both on loan from Hibernian, showed a fine understanding of the requisite talent to compete in the division.
And for the best part, Brechin were generally excellent over the course of the season, particularly between October and February. With a full-time Livingston side in the division, they were never likely to genuinely threaten for the title but they did well to keep pace with them. The club also enjoyed success in the League and Scottish Cups – in the latter competition, they took St Johnstone to a quarter-final replay, earning a reasonably sum of money. An end of season slump saw them finish in fourth place again and although the club defeated Cowdenbeath in the semi-finals (relegating them in the process), they were unable to overcome their old foes Ayr United in the final.
It was at this point when Weir’s good work came undone.
Weir’s first error was his recruitment policy over the summer of 2011. The close season was disrupted by protracted contract negotiations with Rory McAllister and after a tedious “will he, won’t he” saga, he eventually left the club for Peterhead. To compensate, the manager drafted in four forwards to vie with McKenna for a starting berth. Paul McManus was a capable striker at Second Division level, but Derek Carcary (perennially injured), Graham Weir (hard working but incapable of scoring) and Jim Lister (appalling at relegated Alloa the previous year) were not the calibre of player for any side looking to win the division. The addition of full-backs Mick Dunlop and David McClune, also previously of Alloa, failed to improve the team. There were still some good players in the squad, but it looked poorer than last season’s.
Brechin toiled badly and by the beginning of December, the club were in eighth place in the league having accumulated a meagre 15 points. Weir seemed unable to decide on what his best XI was and the team was frequently changed with little forward thinking. His tactics were overly negative, and he often attempted to defend, rather than build on slender advantages, which often resulted in the concession of soft, sloppy goals. Results were generally poor – Stirling Albion, the division’s worst side, beat the club on three occasions, while 2-3 and 1-4 defeats to Arbroath and Forfar respectively were hugely disappointing, the former in particular given Weir’s connection to the club.
His man-management was also concerning. One player described the atmosphere at the club on Twitter as “soul destroying”, and few would have disagreed. Players were dropped from the squad without explanation, while others were alienated and marginalised. The relationship between Weir and captain Neil Jancyzk deteriorated to the extent that on 12 November 2011 at 1-4 home defeat to Albion Rovers, the midfielder argued with Weir following his substitution midway through the second half before storming out of the ground. At a subsequent meeting, the pair rowed again – Jancyzk was deposed as captain and never played for the club again. Other darker reports also circled the club throughout the season.
As the club finished the season in eighth place – their lowest league position in 12 years – the atmosphere around Glebe Park was alarmingly apathetic. That Weir was not sacked in May was astonishing, but some of the more optimistic supporters were still prepared to be patient with him.
However, any remaining goodwill instantly evaporated after Charlie King was released from the club. To many, this was nadir of Weir’s tenure, highlighting the complete disconnection between management and the popular opinion of the support. King might have been a peripheral player worn down by a series of nagging injuries, but he still had something to offer the club in some sort of capacity. Unceremoniously discarded after 11 years of service, his release was bitterly disappointing.
Jim Weir and Brechin City soldiered on into the 2012-13 season, but under the strict proviso from the board that results must improve. A highly commendable performance against Rangers in the Ramsdens Cup in July indicated that the club were in a position to put the previous year’s malaise behind them, but the 0-4 defeat to Stenhousemuir in the League Cup the following week highlighted the same glaring deficiencies within the side. Six points from the first three matches masked the fact the team were on a downward curve, and such was the apathy towards the club that at the 0-3 home loss to Queen of the South, the home fans were outnumbered by the visiting support.
It would be wrong to suggest that supporters were actively willing their side to lose in order to force Weir’s sacking, but there was a palpable sense of relief when he was dismissed following four consecutive defeats. His final match, a 0-3 defeat away to Ayr United, was perhaps their poorest performance of the season, littered with individual errors and tactical mishaps. Few were sorry to see Weir leave the club, and one only had to glance through Twitter to see the levels of resentment towards him. Supporters and players – some who had played under him, some who hadn’t – gleefully united to mock him. A robust defence of his ability was admirably offered by his daughter Lucy in perhaps the most bizarre episodes of the SFL season so far.
Andy Millen and Kevin McGowne took charge of the club while the board searched for a successor, and a week later Ray McKinnon was announced as manager. A player of reasonable calibre with Dundee United, Nottingham Forest and Aberdeen, the 42-year-old had managed Lochee United before joining the SFA as a technical development officer.
As the referee brought his debut to a close, it felt as though Glebe Park had been exorcised. A rousing 3-0 victory over Stranraer, the team played superbly throughout and looked a different side to last season’s bewilderingly meek also-rans. Although Stranraer made for modest opposition, the performance augured well. Other early results under McKinnon have been hugely promising (particularly the outrageous 7-2 deconstruction of Stenhousemuir) and the players, inhibited under the previous regime, are flourishing.
To say that Brechin have definitively clambered out of their trough seems a little premature but on current form, an assault on the play-off positions seems entirely plausible. The SFL doesn’t necessarily need a strong Brechin City, but it certainly is a far poorer place without one.
The rain falls hard on a humdrum town, but Ray McKinnon might just be the man to stop it from dragging you down.
Many thanks go to Kim Paterson for her assistance with this article. Please take the time to follow Kim on Twitter here.