Scotzine’s lower league correspondent Donald Stewart caught up with Dumbarton manager, Stevie Aitken, to hear his views on the Championship season so far and to get a flavour of what life is like managing a part-time team in a division full of full-time sides.
We met, not at Dumbarton’s stadium, but at a local Junior ground where they train on a Tuesday night. No full-time facilities for the Sons of Rock, but the stark realities of Scottish football where they have to make do with hiring facilities from a side that may not have hit their dizzy heights.
Safely kitted out for training, Aitken proved to be as straight as his reputation. I started by asking him to sum up the season so far.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs. Certainly when I got the job in the summer I worked hard to assemble the squad as there weren’t a lot of players signed. The start of the season was great because we got the players in and though the first few games were obviously tough (v Hibernian and St Mirren) we did really well which was terrific.
“But we always knew that at some point it would take a wee dip because the players were getting used to each other. So we took a wee spell when things weren’t going our way and it was difficult, but the players kept working away and kept believing. We were always going to do things the right way and over the last wee while we’ve seen it start to turn. Certainly over the last week it’s been really good for us.”
With wins over Hibs and St.Mirren in the first two league games it would have been understandable if supporters had thought Aitken could have walked on water. However, the next six league games went without a win and they looked likely to drown in the relegation quagmire before a victory at home against Livingston, which was remarkably on the same day that he held a meet the manager event at the stadium.
With such a rollercoaster start to the season I asked, if there was a target for the season?
“Obviously I spoke to the club at the very start of the season and being in the Championship you want to stay in it. That’s what we want to try and do. It’s a tough Championship with Rangers, Hibs, St Mirren and Falkirk – the big teams – the full time teams in the league.
“You want to be in there again next year but you have to understand that it is always going to be a tough remit so the focus obviously is to stay in this division and that will always be the target. If we can do that then we can look at perhaps pushing on a wee bit.
“It is also my first year and there have been big changes this year. It’s going to take time and I think survival which makes sure you are in this division would be classed as a success.”
In Scottish football much is made of teams that have come into the Championship with a part-time status. For those of us who follow a part-time team it can become tedious, but there are very real pressures and I was keen to hear his views on how being a part-time team effects his club.
“It’s difficult because of the time we have the players. We basically have the players for three hours per week and that’s all we get. We shall train tonight, a Tuesday night for an hour and 45 minutes and then on a Thursday we will get about an hour and fifteen. Full-time players have three hours a day minimum. So I always say to people if you were a professional golfer and playing every day you will always hit a ball better than someone who is playing say two days a week.
“So it is difficult you know but it is what it is and certainly the players that we have attracted here have a lot of experience and have been in the full time set up. We targeted them to bring them here. So it is difficult but it is a challenge and that was one of the challenges that attracted me to come here.”
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of buzz about one youngster that has come through the Academy, Donald McCallum. I was keen to also hear just what importance was placed by the manager on the youth academy.
“Youth set ups are very important as there is not a lot of money in the game now. The money you see every year is drying up and it’s getting tougher and tougher for clubs to shell out on bigger wages so potential transfer fees are important. You have to rely on the youth set up.
“The difficulty we have at Dumbarton is that to bring three, four or even five young players in at the one time you will find it very, very difficult to stay in the division. It’s makes it very difficult for a young player to come on because of the pressure on them.
“Young Donald McCallum has been terrific since day one. He has worked really hard. There’s been a few areas of his game we have had to work on and now that he has had his chance and taken it really well we are delighted for him.
“Hopefully through the coming years there can be two players in the team from the Academy or maybe more. It is important for the long term future of Dumbarton, when maybe I am not the manager, that these players keep coming through because at one time I think we are going to need to rely on more than one young player to keep things going.”
Aitken’s playing career took in only a few clubs – particularly Stranraer and with a couple of short spells at Arthurlie and Stenhousemuir. But there was also a decent amount of time spent at Dumbarton’s rivals across the water, Greenock Morton. I asked what it was like to now manage Dumbarton as an ex-Morton player.
“I enjoyed my time when I was at Morton as a player. I was there for a long time and you enjoy and get to know the club really well but I was at Stranraer longer than I was at Morton, about 12 years all in. But it’s been terrific here and it was a great opportunity for me to manage in the championship.
“Being in the Championship and going to bigger stadiums with right good supports was a challenge that I wanted to take. It’s good when you beat former clubs though. It’s not very good when they beat you!”
Aitken was appointed Dumbarton manager having done some terrific work at Stranraer. As one of the brightest prospects in the lower league, Aitken’s star was always likely to shine but he is keen for people to remember how effective his old club, were.
“A lot of people said Stranraer had punched above their weight. Two years in a row we were tipped for relegation and we nearly got promoted both times. In the last year, we should have won the league.”
I asked Aitken if he had noticed any changes in the game as a manager which means long spells at clubs have become less likely to happen nowadays.
“Years ago when there was a reserve league there were bigger squads so there was a need for more players. When I signed with Morton the contracts were always three year deals, though with Stranraer being part-time there were only year long contracts.
“Part time teams don’t want to start paying players through the summer. The game has changed a lot and it’s tougher for players to try and make their way in the game because money is tighter every year.
“Now that I am in the management side I can see how the budgets work and where the money comes from, you can see why that is. Hopefully one day it can go back and you can maybe get players on two and three year contracts. Then you can actually build but you know that’s maybe years down the line. Full-time clubs can look at that more than we can.”
With the youth academy question out the way, I was keen to understand if Aitken had a perfect blend of experience/youth or what tactics would be employed to secure a way of playing football embedded at Dumbarton.
“It depends on what team you are playing, where you are in the league, what position you are in then you can maybe look at that what ought to work. We have a way we like to play and over the last few weeks you can see it starting to come through. You can see the intensity we like to play football and the way we press teams. That’s the way we want to try and play games.
“When you are perhaps more comfortable in the league you can bleed in more young youngsters. If you are in a situation where things have not gone your way it’s hard to rely on these youngsters as they are learning. You rely more heavily on the experienced players. That’s why we load up with guys like Darren Barr, Frazer Wright and Willie Gibson because they have been and done it.
“Going through a wee sticky spell in the season these guys, we can rely on and wait for the chance to let the young boys progress. The only way they can progress is in a team that is doing well. It is very difficult to impress in a team that’s struggling so it’s just getting that balance and I think up till now we have got that.”
Aitken’s career as a manager took him from being in charge of a team that was expected to fail but ended up being a massive success. As it was a team he had played for twice, during other times when it had also proven to be a massive success I asked how difficult it was to say his goodbyes when he took the Dumbarton job.
“It was very difficult. It took two or three days just thinking about it and speaking to people involved in the game because at Stranraer we had a good thing going and for two or three years we had built up a really good squad and we had great momentum.
“We were unlucky not to win the league and we thought maybe this year with Morton going out it, with only one full time team left in it that there was a great opportunity. Looking back I think it was the right time to move, we were good for two or three years but all good things come to an end. This challenge to manage Dumbarton in the Championship was too big for me to knock back. Even when we went through a wee sticky spell I just knew it was the right thing to do and it’s been great.”
When at Stranraer, Stevie was in the unenviable position of managing a family member – his brother Chris. I asked him how hard that had been for him.
“It was probably harder on him than anybody else because you know him a lot more and you’re closer. I think though it was harder for him than for me. I just treated him like a normal player. It’ll be harder for him because he’s in the dressing room and a squad of players talk and he’ll hear it.”
I saw his brother Chris when he played for Ayr United and captained the side to promotion. I thought him one of the most cultured midfielders we had seen for some time; I was in a minority amongst the more vocal support.
The Aitkens have contributed a huge amount to Scottish football over the years and Stevie is seen by many as being a future Premiership manager.
He has weathered a storm over the last few months and proven that he can get his side up and playing well enough to keep the fans onside.
There was plenty of irony on the 12th of December when his Dumbarton side beat predecessor Ian Murray’s St.Mirren at home leading to Murray resigning from the “bigger” club.
This is a challenge that Aitken is relishing and having met the man I am sure the manager will be the equal of many more challenges to come.