“At the end of the day, I don’t want to be at Stenhousemuir all my days,” Scott Booth told supporters at a meet the manager forum in September. “I want to go on to bigger and better clubs.”
Booth got the first part of his wish anyway, but it might not have been in the manner he imagined. In a short statement on the club website, the Stenhousemuir board announced the 43-year-old’s dismissal; his 11 months in charge were reduced to nothing more than two curt sentences. A solitary point from his final five games was probably enough to convince the board to act decisively, but the sharp decline had struck long ago.
There will be no tearful laments over his departure, no sorrowful goodbyes. No, Booth was one of the most unpopular and divisive managers in the Warriors’ recent history. He alienated players, supporters and almost everyone connected with the club and left the place in a far shabbier condition than he found it. The shorthand analysis of Booth’s tenure is that he grossly overestimated his own ability whilst underestimating the requirements to succeed in League 1. His arrogance, hubris and failure to comprehend his situation has brought Stenhousemuir to the cusp of relegation; how on earth did this happen?
Scott Booth began his playing career with Aberdeen and spent nine years at Pittodrie before joining Borussia Dortmund in 1997. Booth was unable to establish himself with the then European champions but he did become the first Scottish player to win the Intercontinental Cup. After loan spells in the Netherlands with FC Utrecht and Vitesse Arnhem, he moved to FC Twente on a permanent basis and spent four seasons with the Tukkers. He returned to Aberdeen for the 2003-04 campaign before retiring aged 32. Along the way he collected 22 Scotland caps and scored six times. Compared to the average lower-league manager, Booth’s playing record is distinguished.
He moved into the media and worked at Setanta Sports as a co-commentator and match analyst while completing his coaching badges. After the broadcaster hit financial difficulties, Booth worked with Hamilton Academical’s youth teams before joining the SFA in December 2011 as the Scotland U-15 assistant manager. He took up a number of positions within the organisation and the zenith was his U-16s’ Victory Shield triumph over England in November 2013.
Why anyone would want to leave a comfortable, well-paid and reasonably low-pressure coaching role working with the country’s elite youngsters to take charge of an unremarkable part-time side in the third tier might have seemed a little peculiar, but he outlined his motives at the supporters’ meeting. “I really enjoyed my time with the SFA but it wasn’t really enough for me,” Booth said. “I was looking for a way into football management and I jumped at the chance to go for an interview for the Stenhousemuir job.”
His decision to step down from the SFA neatly coincided with Martyn Corrigan’s removal from office. Corrigan was sacked by the Warriors on 21 January 2014 after an alarming run of form culminated in four consecutive defeats. So concerned were the board about recent results that they believed the team would eventually slump towards relegation unless swift action was taken.
Corrigan’s dismissal is still an emotive subject. His supporters believe he was unfairly treated and point to the team’s progress in the cup competitions and their touching distance from the play-off places as examples of their steady development. Dissenters, they say, were getting ahead of themselves and if he had been allowed to add three or four quality signings to the squad over the summer, it would have reaped tangible success this term. Corrigan’s detractors, meanwhile, agree on their excellent Challenge Cup run but the dismal league form, the shapeless tactics and an increasingly dour spectacle could no longer be tolerated. The failure to adequately replace Scot Buist after his injury and subsequent retirement and the embarrassing defeats to Dunfermline Athletic and Rangers also counted against him.
Booth was appointed as the new manager of Stenhousemuir on 18 February 2014 and supporters greeted the announcement with enthusiasm, praising the board for their imaginative and forward-thinking approach. Despite his inexperience, some even thought the club had employed “the new Paul Hartley” – a young, dynamic coach capable of invigorating the squad by using his industry contacts to recruit the best youth players in the country; it was fresh, it was exciting. Booth was signed up on a two-and-a-half year deal and, depending on who you believe, paid a handsome salary to boot. The board had never contracted their managers in the past, preferring to work with them on a rolling basis. But not this time. No, this time was different.
Four days after his appointment, details of Booth’s drink-driving charge were published. As first impressions go, the timing was quite unfortunate.
Brown Ferguson and David Rowson took charge of the club on an interim basis while Booth worked his notice period with the SFA. The new manager’s first match in charge was against Dunfermline on 8 March – given Stenny’s tendency to capitulate against the Pars (Jim Jefferies’s side prevailed in their previous three meetings courtesy of last-minute goals), Booth’s niggardly approach was appropriate for the circumstances and his team ground out a 0-0 draw.
His first match at Ochilview, a thrilling 4-2 victory over Brechin City, offered a tantalising glimpse as to how it was supposed to work. The Warriors scored twice in the first seven minutes, pressed their opponents throughout and knocked the ball around with speed and precision; it was their finest performance of the season. Booth’s good start continued with a draw at Stranraer; a 3-2 victory over Ayr United; a 2-2 home draw with Arbroath; and a win at East Fife. Every point was gleaned through late, decisive goals. The success at New Bayview on 12 April was Stenny’s 12th league game without defeat – the season had been steadied and, outwardly, there was little to complain about.
Inwardly, however, the squad was riven with discontent. Booth was seen as aloof, cold and unapproachable and his players quickly grew to dislike him and his methods. The new manager’s headmasterly and didactic approach to dealing with his squad curried little favour – it was as if he was the teacher and the players were his pupils. Improving the professionalism around the club is one thing, but to do so at the detriment of the whole team is another thing entirely. Booth was unable and unwilling to compromise, and disenfranchised the senior players at the expense of working with the club’s supine youngsters. Beyond the financial incentives, there was little motivation to play for him.
Given his qualifications, training should have been his strongest suit but so dull and disengaging were his sessions that his players became bored. Drills and exercises were frequently interrupted while Booth micromanaged his charges and overloaded them with unnecessary technical detail. The players at his disposal were good enough to function with minimal instruction, yet the manager could not recognise this – to observe one of Booth’s training sessions was to watch a group of fed-up boys gathered in a circle while the manager talked at them. Older players, some of whom with more than 15 years’ experience in the game, felt like they were being spoken down to and patronised. He encouraged his team to “ask questions” and the catchphrase became something of a running joke within the squad.
Booth had no time for anyone with too much to say for themselves and Kevin McKinlay and John Gemmell were quickly identified as troublemakers and shunned to the fringes of the squad. McKinlay only played four times under the new manager, while Gemmell appeared infrequently from the bench. McKinlay’s exile was no great loss – he only briefly flickered over the course of the season and was eventually usurped at left-back by Ciaran Summers – but Gemmell certainly still had something to offer.
Yes, the big striker is a notoriously cantankerous individual but he is human and he needs to be loved, just like everybody else does. When he is fit and on form, Gemmell is one of the best forwards in the lower leagues – during his two years at Ochilview, his all-action, bull-in-a-china-shop performances yielded 29 goals from 50 league appearances; players like that are a precious commodity that cannot be casually tossed away. There may be issues with his attitude but with the correct level of indulgence, Gemmell could have been a superb asset for Booth. Yet the player was rarely acknowledged and became increasingly dismayed with his situation. Despite his contract running until May 2015, Gemmell was allowed to join Albion Rovers at the end of the season.
With three matches remaining, Stenhousemuir sat in fifth, level on points with Ayr United. A defeat to Rangers was to be expected but the loss to Airdrieonians the following week was a grievous blow to their play-off aspirations; the 3-1 win over Brechin at a sun-kissed Glebe Park on the final day of the season was not enough to catapult them above the Honest Men.
By this point, a number of players announced their departure from the club. Ross McNeil had proven himself to be a very handy striker over the course of the season and had contributed with a number of crucial goals, but Booth only saw fit to offer him a deal for the club’s U-20 side; the contract was rejected and he followed Gemmell to Albion Rovers. Nicky Devlin experienced a subdued season but had the qualities to develop into an excellent full-back (and at 20, was the perfect age for Booth to mould), yet he was released. The manager prefixed their discussion by saying: “I’m probably going to regret this!” before telling him he “wasn’t [his] kind of player”. Devlin moved on to Ayr and turned in an exceptional performance when the sides met last month.
He wouldn’t have stayed at Stenny anyway. In fact, the majority of the outgoing players wouldn’t have stayed, even if they had been offered terms. Such was Booth’s unpopularity that a large-scale exodus was to be expected – along with McKinlay, Gemmell, McNeil and Devlin, Sean Higgins, Darren Smith, Sean Lynch, Errol Douglas, David Rowson and Eddie Malone also departed. Including unwanted youngsters, a total of 17 players left the club in May.
A small core of quality remained. Sean Dickson and Stewart Greacen were already contracted for the 2014-15 season while Chris Smith, Ross McMillan, Bryan Hodge and Josh Watt all signed up for the new year. Investment in good, solid players was needed to bring the squad up to the required standard and, initially, Booth’s summer recruitment looked like sound business. Alan Lithgow joined from Ayr to bring depth to the defence; Martin Grehan signed on after an excellent season with Stranraer; Colin McMenamin returned to Scotland and took up a player-coach role; and Kieran Millar, once a highly rated prospect with Hamilton, was drafted in after missing two seasons with a serious knee injury.
The rest of the transfer activity, however, was largely underwhelming. Kris Faulds, the flaky midfielder who had spent the latter half of last season on loan from Falkirk, was signed on a permanent basis; Ross Meechan, an untested right-back, joined after leaving Partick Thistle; Ryan Millar and Paul-Jon Sludden transferred from Stirling University (the latter had trialled with the club three years previously and had played with East Fife before dropping into the Lowland League); and Jamie Reid came in on loan for the second time from Dundee.
It was glaringly obvious that this squad was simply not good enough for the season ahead – it was unbalanced and badly lacking in a number of key positions. Full-backs Ciaran Summers and Robbie Duncan had just ten first-team appearances between them, while Ross Meechan was yet to make his senior debut. Dickson and Hodge were the only two midfielders with any great experience, and Grehan and McMenamin lacked competition and support in attack. Development loans would beef up the numbers over the course of the season but it made little difference to the overall standard. The only person who failed to see this was Booth – “I believe this squad is better than last year’s,” he told anxious supporters.
Not only were his side lacking in quality, they were devoid of personality. League 1 can be a dirty, cynical division and an acquired level of nastiness is needed. Compared to, say, Brechin, Stranraer or Forfar Athletic – hard teams capable of rolling their sleeves up when things get tough – Stenhousemuir did not have anyone who could dictate and dominate proceedings. Booth preferred to have “role models” in his squad than “characters” but he did not realise it was at the detriment to a successful side. During a pre-season meeting, senior players were aghast when the manager told them he expected the team to finish the year with a play-off place as a minimum.
Over the summer, a 23-year-old football analyst was brought into the club. Robert Rowan had worked alongside Booth at the SFA and was tasked with building a scouting network and aiding with the recruitment process. Despite some initial scepticism about his credentials, a positive oration at the meet the manager assembly placated any doubters. So impressive was Rowan, in fact, that he was soon offered a full-time role with Brentford after delivering them a presentation on behalf of Stenhousemuir. Rowan was never replaced and the vaunted network was never developed.
Few supporters had actually seen the new-look outfit play – Ochilview’s tired artificial surface was being replaced and pre-season fixtures were moved to Stirling University – but their limitations were immediately exposed in their first competitive match of new campaign. A Challenge Cup tie with Brora Rangers was not to be underestimated (the Highland League champions boasted solid pros like Grant Munro and Ross Tokely in their ranks) but they were a lumbering side that could be exploited with width and pace. Yet Booth’s team were lacking in both areas and could not contain Zander Sutherland – the little striker scored a hat-trick in the 1-3 defeat. Booth’s insistence that Jack Hamilton’s goal kicks were played short, with his centre-backs splitting as the full-backs pushed up the pitch, was just not suitable for the conditions.
The tactic worked better in the League Cup first round victory over Airdrieonians, but Stenny were abetted by a passive Diamonds side who stood off and allowed Hamilton to move the ball out from the back without hindrance. Airdrie looked far more purposeful the following week when the sides met for the first league match of the season at Ochilview – they hammered their hosts but were unable to strike a critical blow. Martin Grehan capitalised on their profligacy with three minutes remaining to poke home the game’s winning goal.
While the three points were gratefully accepted, the level of performance was a concern. Once again, Booth was intent on Hamilton fielding the ball short – an admirable pursuit, no doubt – but Alan Lithgow and Stewart Greacen lacked the finesse to start play from the back. The centre-backs would inevitably find themselves under pressure and then return the ball to the goalkeeper to punt it up the park. It might seem a little reductive to champion the back-to-front approach but there has to be a degree of understanding of the level. The strategy has not been repeated since Greg Fleming replaced Hamilton but a lack of muscle from the middle to the front limits the effectiveness of the high ball.
A tepid defeat the next week at Brechin was immediately followed by a horrid 4-5 home loss to Stirling Albion. The young side lacked the savvy to sufficiently protect the defence as the Binos tore through Stenhousemuir time and again – Gordon Smith might just have had the finest game of his career that afternoon. The despair was briefly tempered by a 1-1 draw with high-flying Ayr but it deepened after a dire showing against Dunfermline at East End Park – such was the poverty of the Warriors’ attack that they failed to register a single shot on goal. The match report on the club website opened with moderate criticism of their offense; Booth requested it to be excised. Around the same time, the Falkirk Herald published an editorial claiming the manager had failed to return their correspondence since the paper discussed his court appearance in June (although Booth did continue to speak to matchday reporter Arthur McTague).
Results between September and October improved – victories over Greenock Morton and Stirling Albion bookended a draw with Stranraer and a defeat at Forfar – but the corner was never turned. There were never any corners, in fact. Three consecutive losses followed, including a poor display against Brechin in the Scottish Cup, with each beating more dispiriting than the last.
During pre-season, Booth had introduced an additional night’s training to his players, moving the existing system from Tuesday and Thursday evenings to Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. The intention was to use Monday nights to bridge the gap between the U-20 side and the senior squad (“I can see the kids every time they train and, when I need to, I can filter them in with the first team squad”), while the Wednesday was used for extra fitness training. “We want to make it enjoyable so they will want to come three times a week,” Booth said.
It did not have the desired effect and the players found the new regime both physically and mentally draining. All three sessions were hard but Wednesday nights were particularly gruelling, with players expected to undertake high-intensity drills more accustomed to pre-season. These sessions were so demanding that they would be out of breath at the end; such was the lack of recovery time that some even woke up on matchdays with sore legs. (Some players were given special dispensation to miss the Wednesday session, which sometimes led to resentment towards them.) Trying to shunt full-time preparation into part-time framework was unsustainable but when the players complained, their concerns were ignored.
It was doubtful whether or not the additional training even made any difference. The players took part in a yo-yo test in pre-season, and again several months into the campaign; the results were almost identical. Last term’s side were defined by their ability to score late goals – so far, this team have netted just twice in the final minutes (and one of them was an own goal). Without explanation, training reverted back to Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the New Year.
Stenhousemuir recorded three wins in six matches between mid-November and the end of December – they were excellent in the 1-0 victory over Dunfermline, and turned in their best performance of the season when they ended Stranraer’s 13-game unbeaten sequence – but they were never able to piece together a consistent run of form to propel them up the table. The team just wasn’t good enough to achieve back-to-back wins. Booth had a quixotic insistence on integrating youth players into the starting line-up, regardless of their ability or readiness for League 1 football: Ross Meechan was tried out at right-back for a spell but he was often reckless and too panicky on the ball to ever make the position his own; Jamie Reid was unable to reprise the level of performance he showed on loan in 2012-13; and striker Fraser Eddington was vastly over-promoted and required more time in the U-20s.
Booth experimented with numerous combinations across his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with limited success. Ross McMillan, Stewart Greacen, Alan Lithgow and even Meechan were tried out in numerous defensive partnerships (and it must be said, Meechan looked far better in the middle than he did on the right) but the manager could never settle on a preferred duo. Lithgow was also asked to fill in at left- and right-back on occasion. Kris Faulds and Bryan Hodge were alternated alongside Kieran Millar in the double-pivot role and an ever-rotating cast of characters played in the attacking three. Booth did not know what his preferred XI was and the same side was rarely fielded in consecutive matches.
Even although the team had spent all but the first two weeks of the season bobbing between eighth and ninth, the manager never once discussed relegation. Booth would never focus on the negative aspects of his side’s performance. “I’m really disappointed because I thought that for the majority of the game we more than matched them, and I’m disappointed we were undone by two set-pieces,” he said after an abject showing against Forfar in December. It was one of their worst displays of the season – Stenny were well beaten and barely landed a meaningful blow. Defending the team in public is one thing, but Booth would also tell confused players they’d done well. Every loss was another hard-luck story and responsibility was never taken. Goodness knows what Brown Ferguson made of it all – the assistant manager had spent the majority of his career in the third tier and was part of several good sides, but his input was minimal.
The January transfer window gave Booth the opportunity to add some steel to his team but his first signing was 19-year-old Lee Gallacher, a diminutive baller from Partick Thistle no different to Kris Faulds or Bryan Hodge. Gallacher looked sparky enough on his debut but has dropped out of contention and wasn’t even included in the squad for the weekend’s defeat at Peterhead. Paul McMullan and Craig Sutherland were drafted in later on in the month – McMullan, a spunky young attacker signed on loan from Celtic, looks like a tremendous prospect but Sutherland, a journeyman striker, appears no better than the existing options. Martin Grehan, fit but rarely used, must be eyeing up his exit.
Stenhousemuir followed up their victory at Stranraer with another disjointed showing against Stirling Albion on 3 January. The game was overshadowed by the tragic death of Kyle Doherty and, all things considered, probably should have been postponed, but far better was expected against a team that had failed to win any of its last 15 league matches. (The Binos’ last victory, as it happened, was against Stenny in August.) The Warriors offered very little in attack – their strategy amounted to little more than hopeful balls shelled towards Colin McMenamin – and the brutish pair of Chris Smith and Craig Wedderburn kept them at bay with no real effort. At the end of the match, Booth was jeered off the pitch by a small section of the support; Martyn Corrigan, meanwhile, who had taken up the assistant manager’s post at Forthbank, was warmly applauded.
Unable to keep up with Stefan McCluskey’s dancing feet, Stenny jobbed to Morton before losing their third straight match in a 0-1 defeat at Forfar. A stuffy 1-1 home draw with Ayr on 24 January was notable by Sean Dickson’s absence from the ground. Before the game, a rumour had spread that the player had been told he was free to join another team; afterwards, Booth admitted he was looking to move him on.
“I’ve had a conversation with Sean and Sean will be available for a club to come in and get him, or he can find a new club,” said the manager.
“Really?!” asked an incredulous reporter.
“Yeah. There’s no guarantee that Dixie will play every game and he needs to be playing games, he needs games as well, so… It might happen, it might not happen, we’ll wait and see how the next week goes, but that’s where we are at the moment.”
Sean Dickson made his Stenhousemuir debut as an 80th minute substitute as John Coughlin’s side drew 2-2 with Brechin on 30 January 2010. He established himself in the senior team under Davie Irons, first as an auxiliary left-back and then in his natural position on the left wing, and developed further under Martyn Corrigan where he was shifted infield to operate as a floating attack-minded midfielder. The player enjoyed his best form in this role – he turned in a man-of-the-match performance in the 2-1 League Cup triumph over Kilmarnock and last term scored 12 times in all competitions, including the opening goal in the 3-3 draw with Rangers. Dickson was direct and dynamic on the pitch and played for the club with pride.
Booth couldn’t appear to make up his mind about him. Sometimes he would start matches; sometimes he would start from the bench. After being dropped for “inconsistency” (no other explanation was forthcoming), the 23-year-old was reintroduced for September’s contest with Morton and scored one and set up the other in a 2-1 win but it wasn’t enough to convince his manager. Over the festive period and into the New Year he was often the first player substituted, always between 60 and 70 minutes, regardless of how he or the team were performing. Against Forfar and with the score tied at 0-0, Dickson was removed on 63 minutes in favour of trialist right-back Jamie McCormack. As he trudged from the pitch, Dickson threw his gloves into the dugout and swore loudly.
The manager arranged to meet with him in Glasgow the next week and advised him that dissent would not be tolerated and he would be suspended for the forthcoming tie with Ayr. (Curiously enough, Booth had actually spent the Forfar match in the stand as he served a touchline ban following a quarrel in December’s home loss to Brechin. It was his second dismissal of the season.) As the conversation developed, Booth suggested that Dickson had been at Stenhousemuir for too long and would benefit from playing elsewhere. Worn down by his manager’s capriciousness and the exhausting training sessions, he quietly acquiesced. A tearful Dickson collected his papers and left the club, almost five years to the day since his debut. He joined East Fife.
The loss to Peterhead, a bigger, harder, more streetwise team, surprised no-one. Booth’s post-match interview summed up his time in charge of Stenhousemuir – he stood slouched and slack-jawed, his mouth open as he chewed his gum, and he might as well have been talking about a different match at a different time in a different part of the world. He wasn’t even wearing club colours.
He was dismissed the next day; the outpouring of joy and relief was palpable.
Booth’s departure goes some way to lifting the gloom enveloping itself around Ochilview. In January, the board warned a of a difficult financial outlook for the months ahead, citing a lack of revenue from transfer fees and declining attendances amongst the reasons, and encouraged supporters to rally behind the club. Quite how Stenhousemuir have found themselves in this situation remains to be seen (East Stirlingshire continue to rent Ochilview, while Rangers were hosted three times last season), but a meeting between the board and supporters has been arranged for next week and should go some way to explaining things. For a club once seen as the envy of other part-time sides, it is an embarrassing set of circumstances.
Brown Ferguson will take charge of the team for the time being with assistance from Colin McMenamin and Stewart Greacen and the trio face a tough challenge in maintaining their League 1 status. Stirling Albion look bereft at the bottom and should spare them from automatic relegation but Ayr United, lurking two points behind with a game in hand, cannot be discounted. New manager Ian McCall is fully aware of his predicament and has turned over the squad appropriately – Ferguson does not have the same luxury and must make do with what’s already there.
Booth appeared on BBC Sportsound shortly afterwards to talk about his career. He spoke magnanimously about managing Stenhousemuir and said he loved his time at Ochilview but admitted that bringing in too many young players too quickly brought about his downfall. He also expanded on his decision to release Sean Dickson. “The thing is with Sean Dickson, he’s a very good player,” he said. “He’d been at the club for seven years, he’d come through the youth ranks, and I just felt that he needed a change. I had the backing of the board and finances were tight in the window and it enabled me to bring in, I think, one of the best young Scottish players around at the moment, Paul McMullan from Celtic on loan.
“You know, these things are always difficult. For me, it was about trying to bring in younger players, motivated players, but for that you need a confident board with the vision to be behind you and focused to do it. I just didn’t get the time to do it.”
Stenhousemuir’s season has been an incoherent failure and Scott Booth must carry the full responsibility for their current plight. The lacklustre signings, the lack of personality throughout the side, the disgruntled players, the increasingly tedious football, the tumble down the league table – these can all be levelled against him alone. If he does have aspirations to return to management, he would benefit from a long period of introspection to figure out why his tenure with the Warriors ended so calamitously. Acknowledging he stuffed his team full of underdeveloped youngsters is a start but his coaching and man-management skills require serious analysis too.
If Booth ever takes on another part-time club in the future, he must temper his methods accordingly to suit the level. He will not go on to bigger and better things otherwise.