Charlie Telfer’s career is one that I’ve always kept an eye on. Having been touted for big things at Rangers as a teenager, the midfielder was always top of my scout’s shortlist on Football Manager. Something, incidentally, that we’ll soon cover.
Yet, from the tangerine of Tannadice to the Oranje of Holland, Telfer’s career has gone full circle; the playmaker finds himself back in League 1 as he once did with his boyhood club. This time, though, he has the experience to go along with his ability and a manager who trusts him. Two in fact. The born-again Bairn is now focused on returning to the top of his game and the top of the Scottish footballing pyramid with the help of David McCracken and Lee Miller, who we will also be hearing from in Stonewaller Number 2.
But we thought it would be a good idea to go right back to the start of Charlie’s footballing story to get an idea of what has led him to this point. Back To The Future. I promise that the headline has nothing to do with Marty McFly, Charlie….
So before Telfer made the short trip from Falkirk to Stirling for a top up of his short back and sides at Red & Co, we caught up over a coffee in Edinburgh’s George Street. Here is what we got through.
Tell us how you got in to football at first. So we had family friends who were Rangers fans and, for one of my birthdays, they bought me one of the Champions’ League packages for Rangers. We were at one of the games when an advert for the club’s soccer school appeared on the big screens but, at that time, I was playing rugby.
Were you?! Yeah, my dad is in to rugby so I played that as well. I played it from primary one right the way through until fifth year.
Were you… bigger at that point? (Laughs) Nah I was the small, quick one! But, over the years, I’ve not grown that much taller! But when I saw the advert for the Rangers soccer school I thought I’d just go for it. I then went in to the community team before being scouted by the pro-youth coaches at under-10’s. I then moved up with them and worked through the age groups from there.
I read that your dad encouraged you to trial for Rangers’ community team; has your dad been big a big influence on your career since then? Yeah, absolutely. Both of my parents have been, to be honest. I can probably count on both hands the number of games they’ve missed since I first went in to Rangers. We’d go away on International tournaments with Rangers and they’d be the only parents there; some people might think that’s a bit much, but I loved it. As well as that, it’s always been very easy to speak to them about football as they were aware of what was going on. So yeah, they’ve been amazing for me.
You’ve mentioned that you made the jump from the community team to pro-youth set-up, but what transpired that allowed you to do that? It was just a case of me performing well. The coaches of the pro-youth team invited me on a six week trial but, within two weeks, they offered me a contract. So it just went from there.
When that happened, did that give you the confidence that you could kick on and have a career in professional football or was it still too early in your development? I just loved playing football at that time; it was more a case of enjoying it. It never got serious until I was maybe 14. I would maybe go up and play with the older teams from time to time but I just rode with it. But it was when we went to under-15’s that it started to get a bit more serious, yeah.
Just on coming through at Murray Park, how do you look back on your upbringing at Rangers? The main focus for us growing up was winning football matches. You often hear people saying that isn’t right and it should be more about learning how to play the game. But a lot of the boys who I came through with still have that must-win mentality. Albeit I have played for some teams who aren’t doing as well or what have you, but I still get the same frustration when we don’t win. At Rangers, if we lost a game, the coach would still put his arm around you but he would say that we’re not allowed to lose games here; it never felt like you were going to be sacked or anything like that! But it instilled that pressure in me from a young age. I actually struggled to get to grips with the mindset a little bit when I first went in to Dundee United; we’d maybe lose to Aberdeen or Celtic and it was seen as fine. At Rangers it was just a case of ‘win, win, win’.
During your time at the club, Rangers were sent to the bottom of the SPFL Pyramid in 2012 and were made to work their way back through the leagues. You were 17 at the beginning of that first season in the lower leagues, as much as you didn’t want to see your club suffer, did you think the demotion would benefit you personally with more first-team opportunities? Yeah, I think so. I also went full-time that same season. Within two days of pre-season I was training with the first team as well. So, at that point, I did believe there was a real chance of me breaking in to the team. My parents and close friends were saying the same thing. We also thought that the club wouldn’t be signing players on huge contracts and that they’d go down the road of promoting youth instead. So I was really, really excited at the time. But, when Rangers first went in to administration, I was on international duty with Scotland and, when the news broke, I went ‘oh no!’ - I thought they weren’t going to exist! But I was just a bit naive to the situation.
You only made one appearance for the club and decided to move on to Dundee United in the summer of 2014. What do you remember from that period? At the time, I was getting really frustrated as it was myself and Andy Murdoch who were the younger ones training with the senior side. It came to Christmas and all of the other younger boys got two weeks off but we trained all the way through - we even trained on Christmas Day. I think we counted that we were in for twenty days in a row over Christmas. But, as time progressed, I still wasn’t playing. I then came on at Ochilview against Stenhousemuir and was back out of the side. I was just getting really frustrated by it. Especially having seen players like Craig Sibbald at Falkirk racking up over 100 games at the same age I was. Craig and I had been away with Scotland together so I would compare his experience with my own; I was just sitting about! So yeah, I was very frustrated. Then Dundee United came about at the end of that season; and they were flying at the time. It was almost a no-brainer for me. It was tough leaving Rangers after so long and being a fan of the club, but Dundee United were pushing for Europe. I could go from not playing in League 1 to playing in the Premiership and potentially get a run in Europe. So, on a footballing level, it made so much sense for me.
You’ve mentioned that you speak to your parents about football, but did you lean on anyone else for advice during that period? I spoke with my girlfriend and my mum and dad, as you mentioned. They all just wanted me to play. They were just as frustrated as I was when they’d come to Rangers games to watch me but I would be up in the stands. So they shared my view of moving on to find playing time. My agent as well, he told me that it was a great opportunity for me to go and play. He mentioned the young nature of the team - GMS, Armstrong, Souttar, Gauld - so it all pointed towards Dundee United for me at that point.
Given that you had been at Ibrox for over a decade, Rangers were due compensation for your development after you signed for Dundee United at the end of your contract. That process dragged on for a few months and in to the season; was that a distraction for you? It was. As there was a pending tribunal to decide the fee, Dundee United were reluctant to play me as they felt the fee would rise if I was to play well in the first 10-15 games. Both the manager and the chairman told me that I could play here and there but not too much as it might cost them a fortune. I was also stuck in the middle of Dundee United saying Rangers had only existed for two years then Rangers saying they nurtured me since I was nine; so it was a frustrating period. But, saying that, I’m not sure I was ready to play in the first team straight away, so it gave me time to settle in to the club and the standard.
On that, you entered a Dundee United changing room that was brimming with talent and you’ve mentioned some of their names already, but how did you find it compared to the Rangers dressing room? The step up in training was so different. You still had Lee Wallace and Lee McCulloch at Rangers but the Dundee United squad had quality players throughout it.
Dundee United had just beaten Rangers the year before in the Scottish Cup semi-final as well, hadn’t they? They destroyed them, yeah. But Rangers had really good, exciting players like Lewis Macleod and Barry McKay but United were just so good. Even guys like Séan Dillon, the captain, was unbelievable. There was Ciftci, Armstrong, Mackay-Steven; the standard was just so quick. I caught the tail end of Andy Robertson as well just before he left. I remember him firing passes in to me in training and thinking that it was a bit different to what I’d been used to! But they were all the same.
In the years before your arrival at Dundee United, the club had a reputation for having a lively bunch of players, to say the least! How did the culture at Dundee United differ from Rangers? It’s difficult for me to say as I was never in the first-team dressing room at Rangers, I would just train with them. But Dundee United was mental. We had a goalkeeper called Marc McCallum, he got a dart in the leg from Jonny Russell, so it’d be guys like him just running about! Nadir Ciftci was just mental! He was so loud and so angry… all the time! I came from a youth-team dressing room where I was one of the main players to this; shouting and screaming at the physios, fighting with each other… I’m sat in the corner just thinking ‘this isn’t normal’! (Laughs)
Just on your Dundee United teammates, going by your Instagram, it looks like you have a good friendship with Stuart Armstrong; were the younger players in that team close with one another off the pitch? Yeah we were. I stayed with Callum Morris and Jordan Moore initially before moving in to a flat with Stuart and that was where we became really close. But, as I was so young and moving to a city I had never been before - Blair Spittal was the same as he was at Rangers and then Queens Park - we used to go out for coffee after training or we’d maybe go out together at the weekend if we had won; it just felt so different. Some people aren’t fans of Dundee but, for me, I loved it as it was the first city I had properly lived in and I was playing football with guys who were now my mates as well. We’d also go down to the digs where the younger boys stayed from time to time to watch the football; that place was a madhouse.
Who would be in there? Blair started in there. John and Harry Souttar were in there, Reghan Tumilty was in there. Boys would just tie each other to poles and whatnot - it was mental.
Who else from the football world do you include in your close friends list? Blair Spittal, Stuart Armstrong, Andy Murdoch and Ryan Christie; I lived with Ryan for a year-and-a-half so I’m very close with him. So those guys are my closest friends from football. But there are so many other guys I am close with. Robert Thomson, for instance, who I met at Morton is a great guy.
I saw you were at TRNSMT with Ryan Christie last year as well, how was that experience? That was amazing, yeah! He wangled some VIP tickets for us to keep him out of the limelight so it was good. We met so many people that day as well. Si Ferry is the one who stands out as he was visibly enjoying himself! (Laughs)
On music, who do you like to listen to yourself? I was speaking to my girlfriend about this one…
"Some people aren’t fans of Dundee but, for me, I loved it as it was the first city I had properly lived in and I was playing football with guys who were now my mates as well."
Were you anxious about this question? (Laughs) Not anxious! But I asked her who she’d say I listened to and she just said I listen to absolutely everything, so that didn’t help! (Laughs) But it’s true, I don’t really pigeonhole myself to one genre. Myself and Andy Murdoch actually drove the North Coast 500 when the lockdown was relaxing and he said ‘I never realised how much rap music you liked!’ - but I wouldn’t say I was in to rap that much either! (Laughs) So yeah, I just listen to anything that has a good beat to it.
Do you have a pre-match playlist? Yeah I do. I have one that’s called ‘Pump It Up’.
Dundee United links still there? (Laughs) But there’s a mix of vibes on there: some dance tracks, some emotional ones as well just to get the feelings going! (Laughs)
We’ll speak more about your time in Holland in a bit, but did your teammates’ taste in music differ from yours over there? It was very rap orientated. They love their London grime artists. Even the Dutch hip-hop that was played was cool, I quite enjoyed it. I eventually went to a silent disco in Amsterdam and it was all that kinda vibe, so it was good.
We’ve mentioned TRNSMT already, but is live music something you enjoy? I went to see Ben Howard with Ryan Christie at The Hydro, but we hated it - we left early! He’s one of my favourite artists but we didn’t take to his new album. We kept saying ‘one more song’ but it just never got any better!
Going back to Dundee United, when you finally took to the pitch after the tribunal you hit the ground running and were named SPFL Young Player of the Month for November; what do you recall from your first few months at Tannadice on the park? I remember going to speak to Jackie McNamara at the beginning of November to ask him if I would be getting a chance in the first team and he told me I’d be playing the following Saturday versus St. Mirren. But when he told me that I suddenly went ‘oh god’!
Were you confident of chapping the manager’s door at that age? I made sure I never chapped his door! I was like ‘I’ll just try and casually bump in to him on the pitch…’ (Laughs) The only thing I remember from that St. Mirren game, other than scoring, was that I was miles off it! I did alright in the game but I just remember it being so frantic; tackles were flying in, your touch had to be immaculate or people would just hit you. Guys like Jim Goodwin would just fly through you. But I played again and felt better and my confidence just grew from there. It’s also a lot different coming on as a sub compared to playing a full game. But I felt that I was in a really good place at that time and was really enjoying my football.
The club then lost the three players I mentioned above to Celtic in the space of six months and the club struggled to replace them, which ultimately led to relegation from the top flight in the 2015/16 season. You only made a handful of appearances that season as well. Firstly, what do you think went wrong as a whole and, secondly, how difficult a season was that for you personally? I actually started that pre-season really well and had an expectation of stepping up to replace the departed players. Jackie told Blair and I that he saw us replacing Stuart and Gary. So I was full of confidence, did really well in pre-season, done okay in the first game of the season against Aberdeen, then was on the bench the following week against Dundee. For whatever reason appearances were few and far between after that; I couldn’t put my finger on why. I felt like I was working hard and training well; I’m not sure if Jackie lost a bit of faith in me. Soon after that, he was sacked, which was a completely new experience for me. So it was just a full season of frustration, even when I went out on loan to Livingston.
That was my next question actually, as The Lions were relegated that season as well, weren’t they? Yeah. I had only played about eight times for United up until January so I just wanted to go and play football somewhere. I enjoyed my time at Livingston but it came to a horrible end. They were going through a complete transition at the time; David Hopkin was the manager and he eventually took them up to The Premiership after that. I came on loan with Sam Stanton at Hibs and we built up a decent bond and did well at times. But, looking back, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind during that full period. I wasn’t living right, I wasn’t fully focused as my head was so gone from leaving Dundee United the way I did. But that’s me looking back on it now, I was on autopilot at the time. It was a huge learning experience for me. People would say to me that it wasn’t my fault that the club got relegated but, for me, I felt I could still have made a difference. It was also my first experience of understanding that football was more than just a game and that peoples livelihoods were at stake.
Despite not being fully involved in either, do you think playing a part in two relegations in one season had a detrimental impact on your confidence? I think so. I think the three consecutive knocks of not playing with Jackie, not playing with Mixu and then the relegation with Livingston did affect my confidence. As I said though, it was a massive learning curve. But it has taken me a long time to get back to feeling myself after that. I wouldn’t change it, however, as it did help me learn a lot about myself.
What are the main obstacles to overcome for a player who is looking to reach the top of their game again? It’s definitely a mentality thing. I still do struggle with that at times as I think I’m playing below my level. That’s no disrespect to Falkirk as Falkirk are a massive club who should be at a much higher level, but I feel like I could play for the club in The Premiership no problem. I’ve also had an issue with my ankle which I’ve been carrying since my first year in full-time football that has also been a mental block for me.
You then returned to Dundee United at the beginning of the 2016/17 season as the club looked to bounce back to The Premiership at the first attempt. However, after losing the Play-Off Final to Hamilton, you left the club when you weren’t offered a new deal. How big of a blow was that? Yeah so I came back from Livingston and played a lot of games that season. I felt I had done well and got some praise from Ray McKinnon in the press so I had the feeling I would be there for the following season. I was on holiday at the time when I got a call to tell me I wasn’t getting a deal.
Oh really? Who makes that call? It wasn’t Ray, it was Darren Taylor who was his assistant. I remember being devastated at the time when I took the call. I was thinking ‘what am I going to do?’. I was an unfulfilled talent really, is what I thought to myself. So I was thinking ‘Oh no’ at that point!
Well that leads me nicely to my next question: What was your mindset at that point with regards to the next step in your career and having to deal with being a free agent? Well I remember speaking to a few of the Dutch boys at United and asked them what it was like over there. They used to tell me that Dutch football would suit me down to the ground. So when I got released I had it in my head that I wanted to try Holland and that was what eventually happened.
Before that, however, you went on trial with Dumbarton and Bolton before going on trial with Almere City; when you are a free agent and looking to impress on these trials, does your mentality differ to what it is normally when you’re playing? So I wasn't on trial with Dumbarton, I was only training with them as I knew Ian Durrant and he let me come in to keep fit before I went over to Holland. Then I went to Holland on trial for two weeks and did really well. I came back after that fortnight and I thought I was only home to pack my bags and head back out but the deal just laboured on and laboured on. My agent would send an email about part of the offer and they would respond like six days later! We were beginning to think that we needed to find somewhere else, so I went down to Bolton. I really enjoyed it there as well. I was training with the Under-23’s with the opportunity to break in to the first-team so it was a good chance for me. But my head was set on going to Holland, getting out of the UK and trying something different. By this point the negotiations were going back-and-forth between my agent and the club over in Holland and that went on for maybe four or five weeks but, just as the deal was being finalised, I thought I would just go across.
So you were in Holland before the deal was done? Yeah I was. I was staying in a hotel at first then I managed to sort accommodation. But the deal just took so much longer than it needed to and I feel like that had an impact on how my season went thereafter. If I went out there when I was supposed to way back at the start I would only have missed a week but, in the end, I missed all of their pre-season games and so I ended up starting the season on the bench; that was pretty disappointing.
That is frustrating. But, just going back to your trials, do you think you play any differently when you are under the magnifying glass? I think it’s probably something I should take in to games more as I actually had a bit of a ‘fuck it’ attitude. I wanted to try and do what I do and just enjoy it. I tried to get involved in the game as much as possible and if they like you they like you. It’s almost a blank page for me as a player to go out and show what I can do. With Mixu, for example, I had to maybe play a certain way and it was similar with Ray. So I enjoyed the trials. The pressure was quite high and I was really nervous but, looking back, I quite enjoyed that spell and the do-or-die nature of those trials. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, mind you! (Laughs)
Aberdeen defender Greg Leigh was our cover star for Stonewaller Number 1 and he recently returned to The Dons from Dutch club NAC Breda. In his interview he told us that, given his experiences in Holland, he would advise players to do their research on a foreign club prior to signing - did you do any investigatory work on the club before you left? I did a bit of research, yeah. I looked at the stadium, I looked at the players - I spent ages looking at who they all played for and what the standard would be. But it wasn’t until I got there that I realised that the club were really up-and-coming.
Weren’t they only formed really recently? Yeah, very recently! I got an email the other day calling on all previous players about their fifteen year celebration or something like that! So I did as much research as I could. I would have loved to have learned the language and had a grasp of it.
The Dutch are quite good at speaking English so how did you adapt to any potential language barrier out there? So that was the issue with learning Dutch! They all speak such good English so there was no point! I was on Duo-lingo every night! (Laughs) I could understand large elements of team-talks and things like that but, when two players were speaking to each other, I wouldn’t have a clue.
What would you cite as the main cultural differences between The Netherlands and home with regards to football? I think they are braver on the ball over there. That stems from their upbringing. We were the same at Rangers in that we were encouraged to play out from the back. Celtic would have been the same. But I think every club over there are instructed to play out from the back. Even small things like the right centre-back coming over for a left-back's throw-in, just to bounce it and then play. If that happened here the manager would go mental! (Laughs) They were just so technically good. The shooting drills would be way more advanced than over here and you’d see the defenders scoring volleys in to the top corner!
With you being quite technical yourself, do you think you adapted to that quite well? When I went there at first I was like ‘Wow’. It was similar to when I first went in to Dundee United in that I thought the standard was really high. But after four or five training sessions I actually felt that I was one of the better players in the team. The playing style suited me as well. I remember hooking a channel ball one time to get us out and people were shouting at me! If you did that here you’d be cheered! (Laughs)
Another element of culture is lifestyle; how did that change over in Holland? There was definitely a massive change in how I lived my life over there. So I moved over there by myself and my girlfriend would come over to visit me and so would my parents. But I just got used to living by myself, cooking by myself and doing things by myself. At home you have the choice of seeing friends or just having a quiet night in but I didn’t have a choice over there. So I think I grew and matured massively because of that. I also got myself a bike and cycled everywhere. Absolutely loved that. I would have loved to stay in Holland for longer but I think I got a bit homesick by the end. I don’t think it helped that I was injured and wasn’t playing. But the culture was amazing. You’d go out with your teammates and they’d just be on half-pints or water - there’s no binge culture over there; they are all so focused on being the best they can. It’s really cool to be professional over there. So I really took a lot from their culture and really enjoyed the simpler things during my time over there with being by myself a lot.
So, from your angle, would you recommend going abroad to a Scottish player? Definitely. I hope I get the opportunity to go abroad again myself. My girlfriend was at uni at the time so she couldn’t come across to Holland with me but I think it would be great to experience something new together. That was actually part of the reason I was so keen to try Holland as my girlfriend did a year abroad during uni over in Sweden - she also had a bike! - and I just thought the whole lifestyle looked amazing. So I would recommend it to anyone. But for me personally, I had this tag of being a talented prospect at Rangers and that followed me in Scotland but, moving to Holland, no-one knew who I was. I really liked that and it allowed me to go about my business on and off the pitch.
Almere City are based just outside of Amsterdam - did you ever go in to the capital? So at the start of it when I didn’t really have any mates… my mum will be sad when she sees that! (Laughs) I would just go in myself, take a book, go shopping - just be in amongst it really. But then I got a mate who lived in the centre of Amsterdam as we were both injured at Almere. He told me to come hang out with him and meet his friends and I eventually ended up becoming part of their group. I ended up just basing myself in Amsterdam with him which was really cool. He had this amazing apartment next to the Heineken Factory. My friendship with him was great for me as it opened my eyes to Amsterdam.
Something else Greg Leigh told us about Dutch players was that they dressed to impress; would you go along with that? Yeah they dressed very bizarrely at times! They would come in with the painted jeans, leather jackets sparkly shoes and things like that. But one guy turned up one day with a full AC Milan kit with his name on the back!
No way?! Yeah! It wasn’t even his right name, though, it was like ‘Leeny Kid 13’! He was such a nice guy and he was a good footballer as well but, for me, having just come from Dundee United, where, if you walked in with some rascal clothes on, you would get slaughtered! So I’m sitting there waiting on everyone to go in on him. Next thing everyone is going up to him telling him they liked his kit! I’m sitting there thinking ‘this is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in my life!’. (Laughs) And they all made a big effort for a night out. I would just be in a shirt and a pair of chinos!
On that, how would you describe your own style? Just pretty simple, to be honest. I get referred to as Marty McFly quite often, though!
I spoke to Lee Miller and he mentioned you had a bit of a student style.. Yeah everyone says that! People will go ‘Where’s your skateboard?’, I actually do have one but I don’t tell them that! (Laughs) I quite like being slightly different, though; most people will wear trackies or jeans in to training but I like to go in with the rolled up chinos, the white socks and white shoes. I actually like to get a bit dressed up for training but people will say I don’t look too dressed up… I’ll take that as a compliment! (Laughs)
Is there someone that you look to for inspiration on fashion? Not really. When I went to Holland is when I took to the rolled up chinos, the baggy jumpers, the shirts which I thought were really cool. That was the normal Dutch person, it was more of the footballers who came in with the leather jackets which wasn’t my scene; I quite like that simplistic vibe.
Where do you like to pick up new items of clothing? I like Urban Outfitters - I’m happy there is one through in Edinburgh now. There’s also other places in Glasgow like Route One that I like.
There’s one in town as well. Is there?!
Yeah, it’s on Rose Street. Oh really? I’ll need to crack on over there! But that’s the places I like to shop in. I like Urban Outfitters for the Corduroy shirts and the denim jackets. I went through a stage of oversized jumpers and I used to get slaughtered for it! I also really like the refurb section as well; that’s my kind of vibe.
On the park, you narrowly missed out on promotion with Almere City during your solitary season there, but only made eight appearances in the league; how do you reflect on your time in Holland? Yeah so the season is split in to four periods. So you could be 18th in the league, win all of your games in a quarter, and you’d be in the play-offs.
"I like Urban Outfitters for the Corduroy shirts and the denim jackets. I went through a stage of oversized jumpers and I used to get slaughtered for it! I also really like the refurb section as well; that’s my kind of vibe."
Oh really? What happens if you win those games in quarter 1? Yeah, you still get it! So you could win 9 games and lose 28 and still be in the play-offs. I quite liked that. For us, we sneaked in to the play-offs in 10th place. We had a guy who just hit fire and kept scoring which was amazing to see. I was frustrated that I was injured but it was still brilliant to be involved in as a fan and still being in about it. I was really close with the boys and they liked me as I was honest and wanted everyone to do well, which is quite rare over there when players aren’t playing. It was just frustrating that we didn’t win it in the end. Looking back, I had been relegated with Livingston in the play-offs, lost out with Dundee United to Hamilton in the play-off final, and then this. I think we were 1-0 up in the tie but ended up losing 2-1 so it was a frustrating one.
Another thing I wanted to ask you about is the debate surrounding Colt teams in Scotland as I feel that you are best placed to offer an insight on this one. ‘Jong’ teams from Dutch superpowers such as Ajax, PSV, AZ, Utrecht play in the second division and you would have come up against them during your time with Almere City. Having struggled for game time earlier in your career with Rangers, do you think that Colt teams should be integrated in to the Scottish pyramid? Firstly, it’s so different over there as they all really respect the likes of PSV and Ajax. Ajax actually won the league in my season with Almere but nobody complained! I don’t think I would want Celtic, Rangers or Aberdeen in the Championship but it seemed like everyone had been at those big clubs so had respect for them. We played Ajax early in the season and lost 3-0 and everyone was like ‘yeah, they are unbelievable’. But if that happened here against a Rangers Colt team, for example, it would be seen as unacceptable. I don’t know if that’s because there is a more intense rivalry between football fans in Scotland but, in saying that, I still think they have intense rivalries in Holland, so I’m not sure where it comes from. But I think the inclusion of Colt teams would be great. Going by my experience at Rangers, I think if I was playing against first-team players when I was 17 and 18 I would be a much better player now. I think so many more players would make it in the game if that was the case.
After leaving Almere City you signed with Greenock Morton; how did that move come about for you? Especially given it was with Ray McKinnon who had released you from Tannadice a year prior? I was very sceptical about it but it was one of the main concrete offers that I had so I decided to go for it. I also really enjoyed Ray’s training at United and Andy Murdoch was there at the time and it would have been cool to play with him again having been together at Rangers. But I was sceptical of trusting it. I remember McKinnon saying that he couldn’t afford to keep me at Dundee United and that they wanted to go in a different direction. I was thinking ‘Sure’. But, at the same time, he was bringing me in as his player; he wasn’t going to bring me in and not play me. So that’s the way I looked at it.
Talking about trust… Ray McKinnon left Morton two weeks in to the season to sign for Falkirk. How did the squad react to that? Mixed. Very, very mixed. People he had signed were quite disappointed. Even people who were at Morton already, Michael Tidser, for example, who enjoyed playing under him and was probably why he went and joined him at Falkirk, was disappointed that he left. So I think disappointment was the overriding feeling. But we all did understand why he left to go to Falkirk. Falkirk are a massive club - we’ve all played at the stadium and sat in the dressing room and it’s a different level from anyone else in the Championship and some of the bottom-end Premiership clubs.
A rivalry between the two clubs then ensued throughout the remainder of that season before Falkirk were eventually relegated. Did you feel that on the pitch or was it only in the terraces? I think it was the first game we played Falkirk after Ray had left when the police came in to the dressing room before the match! They told us not to react to the fans if anything happened. The game itself was quite lively but it wasn’t too bad. Before the game we were all like ‘let’s beat them’ but we didn’t think it was a huge rivalry. Not until the police came in!
You scored one of the goals for Morton in a 2-0 win on Matchday 35 which helped to push Falkirk further towards the trap door; is that something that crossed your mind when you signed for the club? Not really. At the time, Morton were going through a sticky patch and that game was make-or-break for us. I was going through so much stress about the situation at the time as it could have been another relegation for me and I had seen the impact that could have on peoples lives from Livingston. So I was feeling so much pressure and that probably helped to bring out my best form in that run-in which culminated with me scoring in that game.
And how did it come to pass that you swapped Morton for Falkirk? Well I had a clause in my Morton contract which stated that, if I started 25 games, I would get a new deal on the same terms. I had started the last seven games of the season and the last game would have been the 25th. I felt I had been playing really well and I was looking forward to putting that season behind me with Ray leaving and the threat of relegation. Then, on the Tuesday before the game, Jonatan Johansson pulled me to say that I was going to get a call from the chairman to let me know that the club couldn’t afford my new deal and so he didn’t want me to play. I thought that was a bit unusual but the manager told me he was going to play me and it was up to me what I did. Then, on the morning of the game, Jonatan Johansson was sacked as they were told they couldn’t play me!
Wow! So were you in the stands that day? I was on the bench and I came on. Morton spoke to me about coming back after that but the club were making massive cuts and the whole situation with my contract left a bit of a sour taste so I decided I wanted to move on. It was disappointing as I really enjoyed my time there and felt passionately about the club, but I had to move on.
I want to jump on to November of last season, when Lee Miller and David McCracken came in to replace Ray McKinnon - I appreciate you’ll need to be careful with this one! But how has it been working for two managers at once? Yeah, it’s been good. It has been a completely new experience for me. I watched it at Ross County and thought it was a bit odd and wasn’t sure how it would work. I knew they had played for the club before and also that they knew a few players already in the dressing room, so I was a bit worried about how that would transpire. Then I wasn’t playing in the first few games, but I won them over after that! And I’ve really enjoyed it ever since. Training is very demanding but it’s also really fun at the same time. The way they speak to the players is very personable; their man-management skills are very good. Some managers I’ve worked under have struggled with that - be that putting an arm around you or having an honest conversation with you, which players want. People would rather know that the manager didn’t fancy them as opposed to being told they are fantastic but never get any game time. So I enjoy working with them. I also like when Lee brings himself on in games as he can still make a difference. Overall, it’s a good dynamic.
You guys are gearing up for your second season in League 1 after being one of the main victims in the SPFL vote at the beginning of lockdown; what were your views on how the season was ended? We got an opinion poll from the PFA on reconstruction but this was after the vote; we got nothing on that. I was so positive that reconstruction was going to happen that I wasn’t as concerned about the vote. So many people wanted reconstruction and a change to the leagues that I thought it was inevitable that we’d back in the Championship. It was disappointing that we didn’t get the chance to win the league as that was one of the main reasons I came to Falkirk. I feel like we would have caught Raith as well if we were given the chance. So the whole situation was very disappointing again.
Just on the enforced lockdown itself, how was the experience for you? I had some more uni assignments due so I was able to focus on those for the first six weeks or so. I just tried to get a structure as soon as possible. I would focus on my essay in the morning, go a run then chill out in the afternoon. So it was ok. It was the longest I hadn’t played football, though. I started to hate watching football on the TV. Stuart, for example, was playing for Southampton, came up to Edinburgh, saw us, and is away back down to play again before I’ve even played a competitive game!
You mentioned the return of football on to our TV screens and it started with the Bundesliga; one thing I wanted to ask you about was your affiliation with former Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Renato Augusto. Tell us more about that one! A special player! (Laughs) So I played so much Football Manager as a kid; I transitioned from Championship Manager to Football Manager around ’05. I think it was maybe FM12 when Renato Augusto was at Bayer Leverkusen and I just built my team around him! A special player. A special talent. He scored 25 goals two seasons in-a-row so I decided to name my phone after him! (Laughs) I smashed FM when I was in Holland as well; it became a bit of an addiction. But we get a link every year for free from the guy who created it so that’s why I still play it.
On the topic of big players, was there anyone in particular who you looked up to growing up that inspired the way you play now? I loved Barry Ferguson. He broke through at such a young age, got the captaincy at Rangers and was so demanding of the players around him. I was listening to one of the Si Ferry interviews when a foreign player was just in awe of the standards he set. I really tried to emulate what he did when I was coming through. He is also relatable which helped. I love Sergio Busquets on the ball but Barry Ferguson set the standard for a Rangers fan coming through the academy.
You have been deployed in various positions in your career, but what would you say is your favourite? I think either centre-midfield or in the middle of a front three behind the striker. I think my versatility has worked against me in my career. Playing right or left midfield is just not my position. If I need to take someone on I am comfortable doing so but I’m not a winger. I like to link the defence and the attack and that is what I was good at coming through at Rangers and United and where I am trying to get back to. I also think, as a winger, I’m always going to be the first player to be subbed off.
Lastly, if you could choose to play centre-midfield alongside anyone in the world right now, who would it be? Goodness gracious, that’s a good one. Maybe De Bruyne? I also like de Jong at Barcelona. He had just broken through at Ajax when I was in Holland and everyone was talking about him. Not that I knew him before everyone else but I kept an eye on him from that point.
Football Manager scouting? I signed him for absolutely everyone! (Laughs) So him and de Ligt were coming through at the same time and I thought they could go on to do well and they certainly have done. So it would be him or De Bruyne.
Words: Scott Kelly
Photography: Connor Stewart
Location: Red & Co. Stirling
Styling: Charlie Telfer