From a Bairn to a Son, Joe McKee has seen it all. The playmaker has stories to tell from a career that has boomeranged across borders - both geographically and contractually. Right now, McKee is working his way back up the SPFL ladder having enjoyed a successful part-time pitstop at The Rock with Dumbarton. There, under the stewardship of his former Morton gaffer (“never Jim, always ‘gaffer’”), he recorded a sensational 15 assists in League 1 during a curtailed 2019/20 season, which led to a Midfielder of the Year nomination and, with it, a resurgence of confidence. A return to the full-time game was imminent.
Joe actually gave us the inside scoop on his latest venture during our chat but, to avoid getting in to trouble, we’ll stick to what we know. Here’s what was said over a coffee in Cumbernauld.
I want to start from the beginning, you were signed by Dundee United in 2000; how did they pick you up as a 7 year old? So Dundee United had a base in Glasgow, a base in Edinburgh and a base in Dundee with a team in each area for that age group. The one in Glasgow was over in Glasgow Green; my dad actually seen it in the paper or something like that. He told me they were doing trials and just encouraged me to go along. When I went in, though, all the boys were older than me - I was playing a year above myself. Boys like Scott Allan and Paul Slane were in that team - but I really enjoyed it. I played in that team for three or four years and then I went back to my own age group; we had a really good team in Glasgow for that age group. I was playing 7-asides and 9-asides with them but, when it came to going 11-asides, all of the players at the three bases were put in to one big trial match on the astroturf at Gussie Park up in Dundee. You walked in and you had to find your name on a sheet of paper, there were so many kids! We were split in to two teams that had players from each base, we didn’t know each other, but we all played with Dundee United. So it was basically a trial game to identify who was getting kept on and who wasn’t. I’ll always remember it as it was my first ever 11-aside game. My team won 4-1 and I scored two from outside the box; you know what it’s like, we’re all tiny, as soon as you strike it high then it’s a goal. After that game, we were told who was getting kept on and the team came together; I actually was given the captaincy. That’s when we started playing teams like Hearts, Celtic, Rangers - all the good teams.
You then moved on to Livingston; was that because of the travelling up to Dundee? Or was it purely a footballing decision? I actually really liked it at Dundee United. The coach we had there at the time was a guy called Joe Wylie who was really good for me. He then went to Livingston as they had a really good youth set-up. So there were actually about five or six boys who followed him down to Livingston. Dundee United wanted me to stay, but I wanted to go and work with Joe. He taught me how to play centre midfield and how to position myself on the pitch. So I moved on to Livingston and stayed there for three or four years until I went full-time.
During your time at Almondvale the club was taken over by Italian owners who overhauled the culture at the club, with players made to stay at the stadium hotel and training changing to evening sessions. Were you part of that shift or were you out of it a little with the youth team? I never seen too much of that at the start. I actually left school 6 months early because I got permission from the headteacher, he encouraged me to do it as he was an ex-professional footballer. So, at that time, Derek McWilliams had just came in and was taking our under-15 team - Joe had left by this point - and Derek was doing his best to pull a team together; we were all over the place. That team was rubbish. I remember we took some doings that year - we went up to Aberdeen and lost 10-0! Despite that, it was one of the best seasons I had; I was actually progressing. By the end of that season, I would play the game with the under-15’s and then be told to stay behind so I could be in the squad with the 17’s. That under-17’s team had Andy Halliday in it, Gordon Smith, the Jacobs triplets, their older brother Keaghan and Leigh Griffiths - it was a really good side and we had a great coach called Paul Connelly. But, out of everyone in my team from the under-15’s, I was the only one who got kept on and went full-time. But I was only 15. So, for the first six months, I was only getting my bus pass paid for, I wasn’t getting a wage. Then it wasn’t long after that when the Italian’s came in. So, as you’ve said about making boys stay in the hotel and stuff like that, I never got to see that as I was mainly with the youth team at that point. There would only be a couple of times when I was told I’d be training with the first team and I was told to come in for 3 o’clock for training - but I never knew any better; I thought that was normal. Whereas some of the older, more experienced players were moaning about it as they had been used to training Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday off, then back in Thursday and Friday. But it never lasted too long if I remember - maybe five or six months and then they were away. But it was a mad six months! That was the whole Parma thing…
Well that was going to be my next question! I’m sure the story is that one of the owners at the club was also Nakamura’s agent, who was playing for Celtic at the time. I remember coming in to training one morning and Andy Halliday came over to me: ‘We’ve to go in for a meeting in five minutes - me, you and Leigh Griffiths’. I’m asking him what for and he told me that the club wanted to send us to Italy! But, see at that time, the changing room at Livi was crazy - so much stuff was getting done to boys. Everyday! I would just walk about, hoping that nothing would happen to me! I feared for my clothes, I thought my boots would be stolen - it was just constant pranks on people. You’d come in from training and there would be at least one thing done to someone. The first thing I done after training would be to check my pockets to see if everything was still there! So, when Andy told me that, I just thought it was another wind-up. ‘Aye, nae bother… no chance!’. Five minutes later, I think it was one of the owners pulled us all in to his office. He’s talking to us in an Italian accent: ‘You guys.. next week.. go to Parma.. five days’. I’ve just turned 16! I’m like that: ‘Whit?!’ (Laughs) But you don’t realise how big a club Parma are; you don’t realise they are a massive club. Straight away, Sparky says: ‘I’m no gawn!’ (Laughs) So we went over with a fitness coach as he could speak a little bit of English. We were just stuck in these dorms for five days in a training complex. I know that, recently, the boys have told this story on their Open Goal interviews but, from my point of view, when we got to the training ground, there were so many players, right? We had to train with the Under-20’s. I was only 16. And these guys were men. There were guys from all over the world there as well. Anyway, I remember that, when we went in to get changed, Andy and Sparky went in to a different changing room from me, and I went in to another changing room with boys my age, just to get changed. I don’t know why. So I’m in this changing room by myself, a 16 year-old boy from the east end of Glasgow, don’t know anybody. Next thing, this boy comes over to me and starts speaking to me in Italian. He’s not smiling or anything, but he’s quite chirpy. I’m sitting there like: ‘Whit?!’. But another boy could speak English and he explained that he was asking me what position I played. That’s the first thing he’s saying to me! It wasn’t ‘Ciao’ or anything like that, it was ‘what position do you play’ straight away! Then they gave me a training top. It was tight as anything - it was like an under-armour shirt… and we are going out to train in 30 degree heat! Then we got to the pitch. They had about 10 pitches. Nine of them were immaculate and we trained on the worst one. It was horrendous! And then, the boys, as I said, were just like men. But I was quite chirpy at that point myself - boys used to say I was big time. I wasn’t, I was just confident in my ability. I just always wanted the ball. So I managed to find out how to say that in Italian. I was just running about, shouting at people: ‘Passami la palla! passami la palla!’ at these boys who were four or five years older than me! We done well, though; the three of us done well.
That’s what I was going to say to you, as Andy Halliday mentioned in his Open Goal interview that you guys ripped up the trial match and Parma wanted to sign all of you but he personally wasn’t interested. Nor was Leigh Griffiths. But were you ever tempted to make the switch? So, when we came back, we weren’t told what the script was one way or another. It was all hearsay. The person who was Nakamura’s agent was the one dealing with it. A few days after we came back, my dad had a missed call from an unknown number and the person left a voicemail. It was him. I remember he let me listen to it. It was like something out of a gangster movie. They were telling me to get rid of my agent and that he would be my agent. He said that the club would sell Griffiths permanently, but myself and Andy would be loaned with a view to signing after a year. My dad just looked at me and went ‘nah, you’re not going’.
And were you in agreement with him? Yeah. I didn’t want to go. But, after that, from what I heard, they had agreed a fee for Leigh Griffiths, he said no, and it all fell through from there. Then, a short time after that, the owners left and the club went in to administration. It was just a mental time. I used to get my wages late all the time.
You never had long to wait to make the move to a big club as Burnley came in for you. But I read that they were alerted to your ability after you scored 13 goals in 17 starts for the Under-19’s. How did you manage that? I played as a right midfielder as I was too small to play in the middle for the 19’s. I actually remember how I got in to the team. We had a game on a Friday night against Ayr United on the astroturf behind the stadium at Livingston. I was on the bench and we were winning 2-1 at half-time. The manager put me on for the second half on the right-hand side. After five minutes I had scored, and after ten minutes, I had set one up. We beat them 9-1. From there, I was in the team and I just went through a spell of scoring all the time. We had a really good season that year - we won the league and won the cup. It got to a point that I was being told to train with the first team, so I started going up and training with them. My duties at the time were sweeping the floors. I remember doing it this one time on a Friday the day before a first-team game against St. Johnstone. Just as I was sweeping up, the squad list went up for the game on to the gaffer’s door. One of the boys shouted on me to tell me I was in the squad. I thought it was another one their pranks! I thought he was trying to get me to go down to have a look at it and all the boys would start laughing. But I had to sweep down that end anyway, so I tactfully went down and had a look. My name was at the bottom of the sheet. So I went to St. Johnstone. I wasn’t on the bench, I was just in the stands. But even to be quoted by the gaffer, Paul Hegarty - I mean, he played for Dundee United in the European Cup, he knows the game - so I was buzzing. Then it wasn’t long after that when I got asked to go down to Burnley for a week. It was between Burnley or Rangers at the time. We had played Rangers in a game and I played really well, after they came and watched a few more of my games, then they offered me a contract. They actually tried to pay money for me as I was only six months in to a two-year contract with Livingston. But I just thought it would be too hard to make it there – they had a strong youth set-up and had guys like John Fleck coming through at the time. So I decided to go down to Burnley for a week, and I loved it. Within six weeks, they had bought me and I was away. That was it.
You signed for The Clarets having only made one league appearance for Livingston and proceeded to not make a first team appearance for both Burnley and then Bolton; with hindsight, do you wish you had stayed on at Livingston and gotten first team experience before making the move down south, in a similar vein as Andy Halliday? Yeah, I wish I had went down there with more first-team experience. Well, I do and I don’t. As, at the time, Burnley had Owen Coyle - a Scottish manager - and they were sitting about 6th in the Premier League. At the end of the trial week, I thought I would just go back to Livingston as I was signed with them; I was under contract. It’s not like I was an Irish boy over on trial who could sign, as they are all amateur over there, aren’t they? But, at the end of the week, they offered me a three-year contract. My dad and I just looked at each other. We didn’t know what to say. But I do wish I had more game time but, at the same time, my first six months at Burnley were brilliant. I had scored about four or five goals inside my first few games and, straight away, I was up with the reserve team. Then there were occasions I would be up with the first team. I had only just turned 17.
There was quite a large Scottish contingent at the club during that period; did any of those guys take you under their wing? Brian Easton was brilliant with me. There was Steven Fletcher and Kevin McDonald as well who were good. But even the non-Scottish guys, Alex MacDonald, Grant McCann, Graham Alexander, Clarke Carlisle - there were so many experienced players. But, going back to the reserves, I remember my first game with them. It was Liverpool away. I recall speaking to my dad on the bus journey before the game, saying that I would probably just be in the stand or, if I was on the bench, I wouldn’t get on as there were a lot of first-team players in the squad who needed minutes - David Edgar, Brian Easton, Richard Eckersley. So, it came to the game, and Owen Coyle actually played! He wanted to play up front with my mate Wes Fletcher to try and teach him a few things. Well, so he said! He was basically getting Wes to run the channels and he was taking it in to feet! But he named the team, and I was starting left midfield. I had never played there before. I had played on the right, though, with Livingston. So I thought it couldn’t be that hard! I actually had a great game. Rafa Benitez was at the game as they had a few first-team players in the squad themselves. They beat us 1-0 - they scored a free-kick in the last minute. But I went on and played the next five or six games with the reserves. We beat Man City 2-1 and I got an assist. They had some good players: Kieran Trippier, Ben Mee, Boyata, Vladimír Weiss, Michael Johnson. We then played Bolton and beat them 1-0 - I scored the winner. I was still only 17. Not long after that I was speaking to the first-team kit-man, who is Owen Coyle’s brother-in-law, Tony was his name. He told me that, if the club are safe at any point, then you’ll make your debut in the Premier League before the end of the season, just keep working hard. Then, a month later, Coyle was away to Bolton. And that was it. Brian Laws came in and, because of my age, he put me back down to the youth-team as he just wanted experience. So all of that progression I had made just stopped suddenly.
Did you get back on track when you linked up with Owen Coyle once again at Bolton? So, it got down to the last six months of my contract with Burnley and, by that point, Eddie Howe was the manager. I had just returned from a loan spell with St. Mirren - that never really worked out; Danny Lennon didn’t give me any game time. Eddie Howe asked me if I thought I had progressed. I had to explain that I wasn’t sure as, despite not playing as much as I’d like, I was still part of a first-team, I had made my debut against Celtic, I had played at Tynecastle, so I wasn’t sure. He then said: ‘Well let’s see what you’ve got then’, and walked away! So, from that day on, I was with the first-team everyday for the last six months of my deal. Then, with about six weeks of the season to go, we had a meeting. He had just released all of the reserve players in their meetings and then I went in. ‘Listen, we don’t know if we’re going to give you a contract or not, as you’ve not played enough football this year, but if you train well for the next six weeks, we’ll make a decision then’. My attitude, at that point, was ‘I’ve been bought to come here, I’m not going on trial at the club I’m already at’. I probably should have just got my head down and worked hard but, at the same time, I knew that Bolton wanted to sign me. So I came out of the meeting, phoned my dad, told them what the club had said and I made the decision that I wanted to leave. I went right back in to Eddie Howe’s office and told him to just leave it and I’ll go at the end of the season. But I still trained with the first-team for the next six weeks! Then I left after that. I wish I hadn’t done it, to be honest. I was liked at the club, and I liked the staff. I liked the area, I had made friends there. So it’s probably my biggest regret. But I was of the belief I should have been playing in the first-team. You just don’t appreciate the level you are it when you’re that young. I just had a wee chip on my shoulder. Eddie Howe actually told me that they had signed a player from Bournemouth for £1 million and so they couldn’t guarantee me any game time in my position at the time.
Who was that? Danny Ings. But I was like: ‘Fuck him! I should be playing!’. (Laughs) That’s just the way I was. Like that time in Parma, I’m shouting at boys saying: ‘Give me the fucking ball!’. (Laughs) But, the next time my dad came down, one of the coaches actually told him that, if I had stuck it out, I would have gotten a deal. So I left on a bit of a sour note. But Bolton had just been relegated; I thought I had a chance of playing there. It just never worked out like that. Owen Coyle left after a couple of months and it just never worked out.
Another Scottish manager then released you at Bolton in the form of Dougie Freedman. Tell us about that period in your career and where you head was at that summer in 2013? To be honest, when he came in, it was probably the most unenjoyable six months I’ve ever had in football. We just ran every single day. We were doing 9-10k a session… a session! We never had a day off, either. I was living in a flat myself, I never really had any friends there; I got myself in to a rut. By this point, I had been on the verge of being in Burnley’s first-team at 17 to now being one of the oldest players in the under-21’s - my head was gone a bit. I was asking myself how I had gotten to this point. I got so disillusioned with it at one point that I asked to go home for a week, just so I could try and get my head straight. I remember this one game up at Newcastle with the under-21’s, I was up playing against Tavernier actually. The team were doing well at this point and we were winning the game 2-1, but we had to win by two goals to win our section of the league. But I just remember all the boys thinking: ‘Just get this game done!’. (Laughs) Because, if we had scored, the season would have continued for two weeks but, if not, the season would finish there. The boys hated it that much; we all did. All we did was run. I remember we had a big games room at Bolton and the first thing they did was take it away - we were living like robots. In terms of my next step, my agent before that was Darren Jackson, who had just went in to a coaching role at Dundee United. So I never had an agent. I hadn’t been playing that great with Bolton either; I still hadn’t played any first-team football. My head was just a bit all over the place with it. Then I got a phone call from Allan Moore at Morton. I told my dad that I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to go. He told me that I’d miss football if I didn’t and that I should go and meet the manager. So I went and met him at a Brewer’s Fayre! Moorey ordered a pint. I was sitting there thinking: ‘What the fuck is happening here?!’ (Laughs) It was all a bit of a culture shock to me.
You played a bit-part role in your first season with the club as Morton were relegated from The Championship. What do you remember from that season? I got a bad injury on the second game of the season away at Falkirk. So that meant I was out for 3-4 months. By the time I came back, Allan Moore was on the verge of being sacked as the team were bottom of the league and showing no signs of turning it around. It was a shame because he had to practically put a full team together from the previous season. I came back pretty much as Kenny Shiels got the job, and I never got on with him. But, just before he was sacked, Moorey rushed me back to playing - I couldn’t even turn on my ankle! We had a few more bad results, and he was gone. I remember phoning him up and apologising for not being fit for him as he brought me in to play. I still get on with him to this day. I was just gutted that I couldn’t help him out.
You then went on to make 31 appearances the following season as Morton won the league and retuned to The Championship. Was that the year you felt you really announced yourself in senior football? 100%. That was a big turning point for me. Jim Duffy came in that summer after the club were relegated and we had about four or five signed players. But it had been a really tough six months for me before that with Kenny Shiels. So Jim Duffy sat me down and told me that he’s heard I’m a good player but was it not time for me to start showing it on the pitch. That made me wake up a little bit. And that was it. I shook his hand, played thirty-odd times, and we won the league. Brilliant! He was great for me. That’s why I went and worked with him last year. What you see is what you get. He knows the game inside out. He’s brilliant to work with. There was this time in training that I can remember specifically, the gaffer won’t remember it, but you do as a player. We were warming up for training and a few of my passes were going astray, he shouts me over. He went: ‘You alright?’, ‘Aye’, ‘You sure? Is everything alright in the house and that?’, ‘Aye’, ‘Well you’re fucking better than that. Go and get a drink’. Just small things like that, that make you sit up and get your head screwed on. He’s brilliant. One other thing that sticks out from that whole season... we were playing Brechin at home and it was pissing down with rain in the middle of winter. Now the gaffer used to say this to me, because I wanted the ball all the time: ‘Football players who always want the ball are more likely to get criticised, as if you have the ball more, there’s a higher chance you’ll give it away more’. That’s what was happening during this game; I was having an absolute stinker. We were losing 2-1 with about twenty minutes to go when I got the ball and tried to zing it out to Mark Russell at left-back. It skidded off the wet surface to go out for a throw-in. The boo’s that came from The Cowshed after that! Ridiculous. It was: ‘You are this! You are that!’. This is still my first full season playing football. I looked over at the gaffer and he’s shouting at me to keep getting on the ball. So, for the last twenty minutes, I just thought ‘fuck it’ and kept taking the ball off the back four and trying to play forward. It got to the last two minutes and I had the ball at my feet. I made a defence-splitting pass which stuck one of the strikers through. He got pulled down, we got a penalty, scored it, and it finished 2-2. I came in after the game and knew I had a shocker, I thought the gaffer would go through me. I’m sitting there, soaked, thinking ‘please don’t say anything, please don’t say anything’. He comes in. ‘Where’s Joe McKee? Where are ye?’. ‘Aw naw’ I was thinking. He goes: ‘Fucking brilliant! That’s what I want. Balls to go and take the ball. Some of they fans out there were on your case, if you went in to your shell and never took that ball, I would have went right through you. But you went and got it, made that pass and got us a point. That point could be massive come the end of the season!’. Fucking hell, man - I couldn’t wait to go back in to training! He’s just so good at managing people.
Morton then consolidated themselves in The Championship in the 2015-16 season. During that campaign, you signed a pre-contract with Carlisle United; talk us through the process of being involved in a Bosman deal and how, if at all, it impacts your mindset for the remainder of the season. We had just played Celtic in the Scottish Cup on Sky and I played really well. An agent at the time, who is actually my agent now, phoned me after the game and sent me texts that were screenshots of messages from Carlisle which was them saying they wanted to sign me and they had a full contract offer… twenty minutes in to the game! So I must have had a decent start! At this point, I was desperate to go back down south.
Did you feel you had unfinished business? I did. I thought that I had came back up the road, done well, and now I’m ready to go down there and play. There actually wasn’t much else on the table, to be fair - there were a couple of Scottish clubs, there was talk of Portsmouth, but that never really materialised. But Carlisle were really keen on me; they invited me down for dinner and to take in a game. They gave me the whole talk then we watched the match. They have a huge grass pitch which I thought would suit me; I could see myself playing there. They told me they were aiming for promotion out of League Two that season - they are a big club. A mate of mines from Burnley had played for Carlisle a few years before, Ben McKenna - he played with Lee Miller and JP McGovern there, Rory Loy as well - he told me that they were a massive club in that league, that they would challenge, and that I should go for it. So it got to the end of the season with Morton and I told the gaffer I had an offer from Carlisle and that I was going to move on. A lot of players wouldn’t do that, a lot of players would just leave; that’s the level of respect I had for him. But my mentality never changed with Morton. We were trying to reach the play-offs that year, but Raith went on an unbelievable run that we couldn’t match. So I think we finished 5th in the end - that was good for us; considering we only had four or five players signed when Jim Duffy came in after being relegated.
As a bit of an Stonewaller Exclusive, Falkirk manager Lee Miller is set to appear in Stonewaller Number 2 and, in it, he talks about living in the Central Belt during his time with Carlisle; so I’m curious to know if you made the move down to Cumbria or if you commuted from Glasgow on a daily basis. Carlisle gave me accommodation - so I was between here and Carlisle. But the travelling was murder. We used to leave at 8am on a Friday morning for a game on a Saturday. We’d get to, say, London at six or seven o’clock at night, go to sleep, wake up, have the game, travel home and you’d not get back to Carlisle until 2am or 3am. Sometimes I would then jump in the car to Glasgow after that and then it would be half-past three, four in the morning. I’d only ever do that if we had a Monday off; they were good with time off, to be fair. But, as much as they gave me accommodation, there was no wi-fi, no sky or anything like that - it was just a house. I wasn’t going to stay there myself. I was the only guy coming from up north; the other boys in the team were going back to either Manchester and places like that, and they had car schools! It was tough. Then the club went on an unbeaten run, so I wasn’t in the team. Carlisle were the only team in The EFL who were still unbeaten up until something like November, so I was never in the team. By January we were top of the league, but I was desperate to leave. We never had a reserve team, it was just 22 first-team players. There were no younger players either - I was one of the youngest there and I was 24. Every single player felt they should be in the team, as we were all experienced. We used to play 11v11 in training and you wouldn’t know who would win - that was probably why we were so good - the standard in training was so high. But, when it came to January, there were about six or seven of us who were a bit chewed off with our lack of playing time. Who cares if you get promoted but you’ve not played? Fair enough if you’re playing here or there, but we were getting nothing. So, it got to the January, and this is where it all gets a bit strange. Those same six or seven boys had a meeting with the manager and he said to all of them that they could leave. But, when he spoke to me, he told me I could go on loan - I had 6 months left on my deal, what’s the point of me going on loan?! I’m not going to come back! Anyway, at the time, I was supposed to sign with Kilmarnock. But they changed their mind on what type of midfielder they wanted. My agent phoned me up and told me they are looking for a ‘Patrick Vieira-type midfielder!’ (Laughs) So that one fell through. This next bit sums it up. We were playing Fleetwood in one of the cups - I think it was The Checkatrade - Fleetwood were in the league above us at the time. All of the boys who weren’t playing were given a start in this game. So I felt it was a good opportunity to impress and hopefully get a chance in the league in the next couple weeks. We played the game, we won 3-1, I scored and got Man of the Match. The first-team were then reinstated for an FA Cup game with Rochdale, which they lost. The next game was Newport County, who were struggling. I thought I had to be playing. I had just played really well, I was the last player to score for us, the first-team had just lost to Rochdale… I’ve got to be in the team! I wasn’t even in the squad. I couldn’t believe it! Honestly, it was the most messed up time ever! So it was about two weeks in to the window, nothing was happening, the Kilmarnock offer had went dead, I was phoning my agent everyday, but nothing was happening. Then we get to the Saturday, and I’m sitting on the team bus to go to Accrington Stanley when I get a few notifications coming through on my phone from Twitter. I had a look and it was messages from three or four different Carlisle fans which said: ‘Sorry to see you’re leaving, mate’. I was thinking: ‘What?!’ - I was sitting on the team bus with my headphones in two hours before kick-off! So I asked one of the fans where the saw that and he told me it was on the club’s website. I went on to the Carlisle website and the manager had done a pre-match press conference before the game. A reporter asked him about potential in’s and out's at the club and he mentioned that I could go on loan or could leave permanently if something comes in. I was raging. He hadn’t told me that! He had only mentioned the part about going on loan. I’m sitting there furious two hours before kick-off. It comes to the game, he announces the team, and I’m starting! Work that one out! My head was up my arse! (Laughs) I remember we were drawing 1-1, I was doing alright then it got to 60 minutes… Boom. First sub. Me off. I was like: ‘Fuck this’. He was just messing me about! It got to the last day of the window and Falkirk wanted to sign me as they had an injury, I think it was maybe Tom Taiwo, and they needed a central midfielder. I remember speaking to my agent on the phone, he was telling me that Peter Houston wanted to take me, but Carlisle were saying no. So I was on to him to tell the Carlisle manager that I didn’t want to be there, that I wanted to leave and that I wanted to sign for Falkirk. This is at like 10 o’clock at night, two hours before the window shuts! I’m sitting just praying that I don’t need to go back to Carlisle the next day. Half an hour later, I got a call from my agent to tell me they were willing to let me go and to get ready to go through to Falkirk to do my medical. I went through to Falkirk at eleven o’clock at night, done my medical signed, trained the next day, and made my debut two days later. Mental! It was mental. But I was buzzing.
Wow! Just going back to Carlisle, how would you describe the culture in the area? It’s a nice wee place. It’s quiet. There isn’t a huge amount to do. As I mentioned, I was one of the younger players at 24, so the rest of the guys were all married with a wife and kids. It matured me in a way being around those guys. But it was a standing joke that they were all old guys who just went home to sleep after training! Once the boys had surfaced we’d maybe go to Nando’s at night or something. But there wasn’t a lot to do. And if it rains, you’re fucked… it just floods, doesn’t it?!
If you had to liken Carlisle to a Scottish club in terms of size, fan base, stadium etc…. who would it be? I would say lower-end Premiership. For that group of players at that time anyway. We had a lot of good players. We had a guy called Mike Jones who was really good - he played with Oldham and Sheffield Wednesday. I ended up becoming really good mates with him. But the actual place itself, yeah it was alright - it was what it was!
Someone else who signed for Falkirk during the January transfer window that year was Robbie Thomson. We’ve already spoken to Robbie and he told us all about his love for trainers. But I remember you’re unveiling being in a lovely cable jumper; is that where your passion for clothes begins? Aye, I do like my knitwear. I’ve got a wee knitwear one for you today! (Laughs)
I thought you would! I do have a lot of that kinda thing. Although I am getting in to the oversized style. I’ve got an oversized tee for you as well. I just like to mix it up.
Tell us more about your own style, how would you describe it? Just casual. Although, in saying that, I do like a good suit. I’ve got a couple of Armani suits that I like. But I don’t really get an opportunity to wear them!
Who was it that inspired the curtains? I’m a fan of them. They’re alright, aren’t they? The missus loves them. I’m not too keen as, when I’m playing, they just go in my eyes. She suggested I wear a hairband but I told her there was no chance of that happening! Do you know what it was, I got them a couple of years ago. ‘Got them’! As if I went and bought them! I got them a couple of years ago as my good friend from school is a barber in Badlands over in the West End. We grew up together, so he looks after me that way. Because we are so close, I can show him photos of certain haircuts and he can give me a truthful answer. I’ll show him photos of someone like… I don’t know, Becks. A Beckham haircut from years ago and he’ll tell me that I can’t do it! Just stuff like that. He’s quite good that way. So it was getting quite long at one stage and he just suggested a middle shed to me. I told him just to go for it. I really liked it but, as I said, it was a nightmare when I was playing. So I got it all chopped - my missus was raging! But, during lockdown, I just grew them out again.
Do you look to anyone for inspiration on the fashion front, either inside or outside of football? I wouldn’t say anyone in particular. I just like to do my own thing. If I see something that I like I’ll just get it. But, you know what it’s like, sometimes you see something that you think looks good on the model, you try it on, and you look like a bag of shite?
I know exactly what you mean. It’s guys who are covered in tattoos and then I try it on and look terrible. So I take it off straight away! I’m starting to get in to the oversized look as I mentioned but, before, it had to be tight fitting. So maybe I’m broadening my horizons!
Going back to football and Falkirk, I think I saw somewhere that you had a relationship with the physio at the club; did that play a deciding factor on your decision to sign for The Bairns? Somebody wrote that on Wikipedia and it’s a lot of rubbish! I didn’t know Rossco until I signed.
Aw alright, ok! I was wondering if it was true as you ran to him after scoring that screamer at Dundee United in the play-off semi-finals. So was it just because he helped you through your injuries? It was, yeah. I actually got really bad bone bruising in my heel from my debut against Dunfermline. I was out for about six or seven weeks but, when I came back, I was still injured. I rushed myself back as I was only on a six-month deal - I had to play! But it was still excruciating. I was living off tablets. The gaffer told me I was playing a reserve game up at Ross County to get minutes and then I’d be back involved with the first-team. In that game, I went in for a tackle and I done my other ankle. The ankle I had done years ago when I was at Morton. I remember sitting in the dressing room and my ankle was up like a balloon. I thought my season was over. And that was after a first half of the season not getting minutes down in Carlisle - it was a nightmare. My head was gone. There was about two months of the season to go at this point and Rossco told me I’d be out for six to eight weeks. By the time I’d be fit again, the season would be done. I told him I had to get back before then. So we hammered out the rehab twice a day. I remember Peter Houston came in to speak to me and he was gutted. He brought me in back in January to play me and I had been injured twice. I told him at that point that I’d be back by the end of the season to play. And I was. But I was taped up to the max on both ankles. I came on against Dunfermline to see out the game when we were winning and then I started the last game of the season away at Dumbarton, when we had to win to finish second. That was an amazing feeling. That he felt he could trust me to play. Then I obviously played a part in the play-offs. So, when I scored that goal, I just thought to run to Rossco, as he had helped me out so much. Not just from a fitness point of view but mentally as well. There were so many times I would just rant to him in that physio room! My head was gone all throughout that time because I was only signed up for six months. So, when I scored that goal, I just felt it was right. These guys don’t get any publicity, but they do an amazing job, so that’s why I ran to him.
Falkirk’s season ultimately ended at that hurdle as current Falkirk defender Paul Dixon scored a stoppage time winner to send Dundee United to the final. I asked Robbie Thomson this question as well, but do you think that cruel end to the season acted as the catalyst for the downward spiral Falkirk went on, or were the squad of the belief that they could go again and achieve promotion? Erm, I’m not sure. I had only been there for six months but the squad had been together quite a while. If there was a hangover, I didn’t really feel it from my point of view. We were disappointed after that game. We felt we underachieved and that we should have at least reached the final. But, in the aftermath of that game, I can’t really remember what happened. I went in the next day and spoke to Peter Houston, that’s when he offered me a two-year deal. But, other than that, the aftermath of that match is a bit of a blur.
The club got off to a slow start in the following season which saw Peter Houston lose his job and Paul Hartley take over in October. You played fairly regularly under Paul Hartley throughout the remainder of that season but, at the beginning of the 2018/19 season, you were stripped of your squad number and left out of the squad pictures. What can you tell us from that period of time? So, initially, when I signed a two-year deal, I went on holiday and, by the time I came back, we had lost a few players: Danny Rodgers, Bairdy, Bob McHugh, Luke Leahy, David McCracken had went to Peterhead; he was a big part of the changing room. Who else? I don’t want to do anyone a disservice. Wee Airdy had left. He had played bits and bobs and had done well, scoring a couple of goals. Even at that, he was a character and he wanted to win. All of those guys were experienced players but, when they left, I think the club were looking to replace them with some of the younger players. We only signed two or three players that summer. Pre-season went well, we done well in The Betfred Cup, but got off to a slow start in the league that just snowballed. But, for what they had done for the club, I felt they sacked the management team far too quickly. Paul Hartley then came in and turned over a lot players in the January window. He kept me and, like you said, I played regularly, but I was in and out. He dropped me for the Rangers game in the Scottish Cup at Ibrox which I was disappointed with. But, during that period, I had received a suspension from all that carry on that happened. I felt that Falkirk let me down after that because they never appealed it. I was on to them to appeal the decision because, I maintained that I never said anything. But they told me they wouldn’t appeal as I wouldn’t win it and it would be a waste of time. Within a couple weeks I asked for a meeting with the chairwoman to tell her I didn’t want to play for the club again. I felt let down. The club then promised they would put a statement out for me. But nothing happened. Every two weeks I was chapping the Chief Executive’s door asking when it would be done. I remember it went up to the last day of the season. I told the Chief Executive that something had to be done over the close season. He told me that, within a week, it would be done… I never heard from him for seven weeks. I went back for pre-season and, by this point, the gaffer had signed practically a whole new changing room. I went and chapped Paul Hartley’s door and asked to leave. I didn’t want a pay off, I just wanted to be released. He told me he wanted me to stay and that he liked me as a player. But I had made my mind up; I just needed a fresh start away from the club. It’s a shame because it wasn’t his fault and I actually had a decent relationship with him. So I said, look, just wipe the contract for the year and I’ll go. I then came in the next day and was told to train with the kids. That was it. I trained with the kids for six or seven weeks until the manager was sacked. In that scenario so many fans thought the manager had tried to get rid of me, which wasn’t true. My head just wasn’t right at Falkirk and I needed a fresh start to enjoy my football again.
Why did Paul Hartley stand in your way when you were looking to move on? I don’t know. I was still trying to leave when I got a phone call from Ray McKinnon. He told me that he was going to be the manager. He had heard that I wanted to leave but said that he needed me to stay as he didn’t know many of the players Paul Hartley brought in.
That is mad! So how did it go from Ray McKinnon wanting you to stay to you leaving for Dundalk on loan? He brought in Ian McShane. Me and Macca played together at Ayr and we won. At that point, we all thought we’d go on a run and shoot back up the league. Then, a week later, he signed big Abdul Osman. We went to Partick Thistle, he made one change, I was dropped, Abdul played and I never got on. I then got a random phone call from the Dundalk manager to say that he wanted me as they had just lost their two midfielders to injury. I wasn’t really interested at first. But he told me they were a big club, they would give me a place to live and help me out with travel costs. So I phoned my dad and he encouraged me to go, even if it just got me away from Falkirk for a few months. I just couldn’t take it at Falkirk anymore so I just went for it. But, when I went over, I wasn’t really that fit as I hadn’t been playing.
How was your experience in Ireland? My golf was good, that came on! (Laughs) That’s all I did over there. But, with Dundalk, the manager had been the assistant to Stephen Kenny for a long time and then took the manager’s job when he left at the start of that season. When training started, the boys were all calling him by his first name. I had been used to working with Jim Duffy, who is ‘Gaffer’, you would never call him Jim. Never! The Dundalk players were just too familiar with him. He didn’t want to drop certain players because he was close with them. I think, because I was an outsider, he almost saw me as back-up. And that’s the role I played. I never really got a fair crack at all. At that point, I was falling out of love with full-time football. Then, when I went part-time, I started to miss it after a couple of months.
That’s one thing that I wanted to ask you about. Was the overriding factor behind signing for Dumbarton just to rediscover your love for the game? That was it. My head was gone with it. I didn’t know what to do. Clubs were back in pre-season last year, and I had nothing sorted. I didn’t even know if I wanted to play! So I phoned the gaffer. The gaffer is brilliant to phone, even just for advice. So I explained my situation and he told me to just come along to Dumbarton and get some training sessions under my belt. So I did. It was relaxed. Enjoyable. I was getting fitter. Kyle Hutton and Stuart Carswell were there, who have played at a good level; it was just enjoyable. The gaffer told me he would give me minutes in friendlies so I could get my match fitness up if I was going for trials or whatever. We played Dundee United and we beat them 3-2; I scored. After that game, the gaffer phoned me and told me he had put some of his budget aside for a contract for me if I decided I wanted to stay. Within a week, I decided to sign. So that was that!
I feel like, in your career, you’ve had your fair share of misfortune! And, with the way you like to play, getting on the ball and creating chances, is synonymous with a player who is full of confidence; so do you think it impacts your game when you feel your manager doesn’t place his trust in you? I think it would affect any player. If you feel that you have a manager who trusts you… that’s actually the word I used when I was over in Dundalk… he obviously never knew me that well and, as I’ve said, he saw me as a back-up. But I said to him just to trust that I could play well for him - I’ve played hundreds of games! I’ve played in front of fifty-thousand people, just trust me! He didn’t want to trust me! But you need the trust of a manager. You just want honesty as a player. The game is all about opinions. If someone tells me I’m not for them, I will appreciate their honesty! But you just need to feel valued. It’s just man-management.
Dumbarton are obviously a part-time club and part-time players often supplement their football income with a secondary job. You have been building up your coaching business, Full Package Coaching, since the start of this season; tell us more about that. Was coaching something you always wanted to get in to, or did you fall in to it after going part-time? I probably fell in to it. I’ll tell you the story. So, when I was at Falkirk, I was actually doing a personal training course, just because of everything that was going on. I just wanted something to take my mind away from football. I was probably more in to that than I was football at the time, to be honest! So, when I went part-time, I thought I would try being a PT. Within about two weeks, I realised it wasn’t for me. I would be looking at my watch ten minutes in to a session. I just felt I should be on a football pitch. It wasn’t fair to take people’s money for something that I’m not fully committed to. So, one day, I took my nephew down the park, just to help him out as he plays with a boys club. I loved it. So I thought about giving coaching a go. But, without the help of one of the guys at the gym I was at, I wouldn’t have done it. He was brilliant for me. I told him about taking my nephew down the park and he went: ‘Why don’t you do that?’. I had just started at the gym. He didn’t care. He told me that I had the background; I had played football for ten years and people would want me to help their kids. People would jump at it. That’s what he was saying to me. I said that I would need to leave the gym and he didn’t care! I was like that: ‘That’s fucking brilliant’. He even helped me make up fliers which I put about. Within about two weeks, I had around twenty kids. Since then, I’ve loved it. I’ve seen so many players come in, do well and go on to better things. I don’t want to say anything bad about grassroots football but, there have been players who have came in for position specific training, fitness training, whatever, right? I would be saying something to them, basic concepts, and they never had a clue what I meant. Stuff like, taking the ball on your back foot, checking your shoulder, coming in to the pocket; they didn’t know what it meant. For me, though, I had never played grassroots football, I went straight in to a professional set-up and was being taught these things from a young age. So it’s been good to give these kids a better understanding of the game. Prime example, I have this one boy who came to me who was playing for Maryhill under-15’s and was out of the team having been injured and was just after a bit of help. I took him out to the right hand side of the pitch, where he would be the majority of the time, and worked with him on his position. Now, when he’s going in to a game, he knows exactly what he needs to do. Long story short, he ended up captaining the team and has just signed for Stirling Albion pro-youth. That’s within the space of a year. I just enjoy it, helping these boys progress. I’m doing my B-Licence now as well, so it’s definitely something I can see myself doing as time goes on.
We’ve mentioned Robbie Thomson a couple of times, but he has a very successful coaching school with Pro Performance Academy alongside Callum Tapping and Blair Munn; did you turn to Robbie, or anyone else for that matter, for advice on starting up a coaching career? I was actually round at Callum Tapping’s house a few weeks ago! I’ve known Callum and Robbie for years. I only met Blair for the first time about a year ago - he’s a great boy as well and a great coach. But I have spoken to those guys a few times about what they are doing - they are a well established academy with a lot of boys in pro-youth. I would say my clients are just slightly below that, it’s more grassroots players looking to move in to pro-youth. I’ve not been involved in any of their sessions as of yet, but I’ve spoken with Tappy about their programmes in a lot of detail. I know he takes the Dunipace under-20’s as well, he’s been trying to get me to help him out with that! It’s a good set up they have, though; Robbie had his upbringing at Celtic, Tappy was at Celtic then Tottenham, Blair was with Rangers and then Alloa. They’ve all worked with coaches at academies and know what young players need.
Just going back to your personal training spell, one thing that links PT work with football is music .So who do you like to listen to? Quite a mixed bag, to be honest. At the moment, on my Spotify, I would say it’s mainly hip-hop: Drake, Future…
I wasn’t expecting that! What were you thinking?
Bands. No chance, not at all! Mainly Drake, Future, Chris Brown, guys like that. Khalid, The Weeknd, Travis Scott. Just that kinda vibe. DJ Khaled now and again… but not too much of that ‘Another One’ stuff! (Laughs)
Do you ever get to any live shows? Not really. I’m not one for going to live shows. I like the music, but I don’t like going and being in amongst loads of people. It’s just not my thing. I would need to have a few drinks first. People jumping in to me and that? Nah! (Laughs)
Last question. You’ve played for a good few clubs in your career so far, and will be on the move again this summer after leaving Dumbarton; but, if you have one, what is your initiation song and why? Oh god.
Is it something that happens? Aye, it’s happened a couple of times. The Falkirk one, that was a cracker. So when I was a kid, my favourite album was Confessions by Usher - I knew every word to every song. I remember when I went in to Falkirk for the first day of training I was shitting myself! The first thing somebody said to me was: ‘When are you singing?’ Just let me train first! So a few days went by, I had my debut, we won, so I was a bit more confident. I think it was the Monday of the following week when I was made to sing. Everybody was there, all squeezed in to the changing room; the whole squad, the staff, Houstie… everybody!
And was this just for your performance? No one else had signed that same week to help you out? Just me. Fraser Aird had signed a few weeks before me, I’m sure, but he had already sang. I’m sure he sang something that was quite common that everyone knew the words to.
Simply The Best? Probably! (Laughs) Nah, I think it was Oasis or something pretty standard. But I thought that was quite boring, so I wanted to try and mix it up a bit. I was giving it a bit to the boys: ‘What you’s wanting?’, ‘What you got?’, ‘Anything, you just name the genre’ - stuff like that. So I ended up thinking: ‘Fuck it, I’ll just sing one of the songs from Confessions, I know it word for word’. But I picked quite a slow one… (Laughs) Houston and that were watching this! I remember Cracks asking if I wanted the speaker on and I went: ‘Nah, fuck it, I’ll just sing it’!
A cappella?! Aye, exactly! Swear to god… they had to get me to stop! Two minutes later and I’m still belting out this tune! By the end, everyone was in shock like: ‘What the fuck! I cannot believe he’s done that’! (Laughs) I never got a round of applause after it, it was just a pure weird vibe and we just went out to training! At Carlisle, I did Wonderwall. Pretty standard. I sang it for thirty seconds, people joined in and that was it. So I wanted to change it up for Falkirk. It was only a few weeks later, when the boys started to get to know me, when they were like: ‘ What the fuck were you thinking?! You’re just in the door and you’re belting out an Usher song that no one knows the words to!’ (Laughs) two minutes later I’m still belting out this song with a fake microphone and my eyes shut!
That’s amazing, I’m glad I asked that question! Honestly (Laughs) Me, big Lee Miller and Airdy ended up in a car school and after a few weeks they where just like: ‘What were you thinking?!’ So that was that!
Location: Cumbernauld Retail Park
Words: Scott Kelly
Digital Photography: Connor Stewart
Film Photography: Andy Low