A man for all seasons

As a forward with Dundee and Aberdeen, Jocky Scott was ahead of his time. As a coach, he has been even more influential over the decades.

By Greg Gordon

This article first appeared in Issue 16 which was published in March 2020.

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“As tough, self-taught footballers, we arrived at clubs ready to play and all the coaching we needed was tactical or about how to play in a team. Current team players by necessity will always look to their coaches to fill in the gaps in their learning for them.”
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“You can focus on Jocky’s strengths – as a manager, on the training pitch, developing talent, especially strikers, or even as an analyst of teams. But you shouldn’t forget his eye for a player.”

“If you asked any of the cognoscenti within our game for an opinion – people like Sir Alex Ferguson, Walter Smith, Archie Knox, Andy Roxburgh, Alex Smith – you’d get the same response as mine, every time. There is no sense of Jocky Scott being underrated within the game at all. They’ll all speak to exactly how good he is.”

This is the opinion of Craig Brown, a man with over 60 years’ experience at the top of the game. And the former Scotland, Aberdeen, Motherwell and Preston boss says Scott’s list of admirers is almost too numerous to list.

“You’d also have to include guys like Paul Sturrock, Doug Houston and Jimmy Bone, Frank Coulston, Jim Duffy, Gordon Wallace – and that’s just off the top of my head. The number would stretch to hundreds with a connection to the two Dundee clubs alone.”

Brown also believes that Jocky Scott’s quality as a coach is best illustrated by way of an anecdote.

Brown says: “As the last Englishman to win the Premier League and also so as the former FA Technical Director, Howard Wilkinson had access to every coach of note in England. But on my recommendation, the man he hired as a coach at Sunderland in 2002 was Jocky Scott. Howard didn’t know Jocky, though he’d have known of him as a manager of Notts County, but he was happy to follow up my suggestion, which ended with him being appointed as his reserve team coach.”

What happened next, Brown says, merely confirmed what those that have worked with Jocky Scott already know. He is a coach whose work bears favourable comparison with most – regardless of his profile.

Brown says: “Howard is notoriously difficult to please. He’s a gruff Yorkshireman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and he definitely has a side to him, so it speaks volumes that he called me three weeks after he’d taken Jocky down there to thank me for recommending him. For Howard to do that, he must have been sincerely impressed with Jocky’s work. And that’s typical of the esteem he is held in by those that have worked with him in the game.”

During a short stay in the North East, Jocky Scott coached the Black Cats reserves to the 2003 Reserve League North title. Brown most recently had the opportunity to witness Scott’s work again first hand when he brought him back to Pittodrie to work with Aberdeen’s strikers in 2012.

“Aberdeen were hardly awash with money and it would have been a hard sell to get anyone in – in any role – then. But such is the esteem that Jocky is held in at the club that I didn’t even have to persuade Stewart Milne, the Chief Executive Duncan Fraser or even a single board member. To a man, they were all very enthusiastic from the moment I suggested it.”

Scott worked three afternoons a week with the Dons’ strikers and Brown says: “Typically you’d expect resistance to additional training but the boys lapped up Jocky’s sessions. The Northern Ireland internationals Niall McGinn and Josh Magennis learned from working with Jocky as did Mitch Megginson, whose scored a load of goals at Cove this season. Every one of them was keen and they were also extremely appreciative.”

Craig Brown first came across Jocky Scott in 1964 as Brown’s injury-hit spell at Dens Park wound down prior to a transfer to Falkirk.

“Jocky was really a shy, small boy when he came into our dressing room. He’d come from the ground staff at Chelsea and as with all youngsters you’d have wondered whether he’d have been tough enough to the step up to men’s football. But there was no mistaking the teenage striker’s ability.”

The former Scotland manager recalls a slight, skilful forward with very good imagination and ability. “As a mature player, you’d say Jocky was probably years ahead of his time. In modern terms you’d think of him as a number ten, a creative forward who played off the front or got you high up the park. Comparing him to present day players, as a youngster, Jocky had the same kind of qualities as young Billy Gilmour. Or you might more accurately say that Billy Gilmour boasts similar qualities to a young Jocky Scott.”

In person, Scott doesn’t disappoint. He’s the person football people tell you to expect: quietly confident, sharp and incisive, modest and enthusiastic about players who served him well and those whose coaching he’s enjoyed.

Since leaving Aberdeen, when Derek McInnes became the Dons’ boss in 2013, Jocky Scott has been out of the game. These days he’s he’s far more likely to be found on the golf course where unsurprisingly he enjoys a similarly esteemed reputation among those within the football fraternity that share Scott’s obsession with the small ball game. Just back from a trip visiting family in Australia, the 2019 Covid lockdown has seen one of Scottish football’s finest minds reduced to DIY, laying slabs and painting fences at home in Angus. It barely needs saying but the absence of the once familiar sight of Jocky Scott on the touchline and on the training field is a loss to our game.

He says: “I am always asked my opinion about players or managers and the truth is that you only really form a good idea when you’ve seen someone’s work first hand. Players have hidden depths and weaknesses you don’t quite appreciate seeing them as opponents. And there are a lot of coaches who talk well about the game but for whatever reason they can’t translate that into training where the players are able to take their coaching on board and into games. At a basic level that’s what separates the best coaches from the rest. Coaching is about communicating. About sound, practical ideas, taught well.”

Brown says: “Jocky is a very humble guy but if he has an opinion he’ll express it in a forthright manner. His confidence comes from the fact that he knows his stuff – as you’d expect of someone who worked under the master Jim McLean.

“His training was very organised in terms of its direction and objectives. It was always high tempo, with no question of anyone standing around. Everything was immaculate in terms of standards, starting with time keeping. And like Jim McLean he repeated things until the execution was second nature.”

While these days it is expected that staff fit into the straitjacket of specific roles, Brown says Scott’s knowledge of the game ensured he is and was eminently capable. He says: “He could really do it all. Manager, assistant, you could trust your training to him, like Fergie did with Archie Knox at Man United. He could coach your strikers or a specific group of players. With Scotland, I also had him watching future opponents for me precisely because his judgement of teams and players was so consistent.”

As it is, Scott’s coaching career came broadly from nowhere. At this point, returning to Dundee in 1978, he was probably best-known for his hat-trick in the 1976 League Cup semi-final against Rangers, his part in the 5-1 win widely acclaimed as one of the great individual performances of any player in an Aberdeen jersey. He also played a supporting role in Pele’s final game in professional football for New York Cosmos v Scott’s Seattle Sounders in the 1977 Soccer Bowl final, a 70,000 sell-out at Giants Stadium. The man with the trademark cowboy moustache would simply have expected more of the same on his return to Scotland. But it didn’t turn out that way.

He says: “I’d never thought of being a coach until I picked up a bad back injury when I was 30. I’d come back from the States and I thought I would still have a good few years left of playing. For four months I had regular treatment, manipulation under anaesthetic, and then an operation. Though it was successful, I knew I’d never get back to the level I’d played at before.”

As Scott recuperated, back at Dens Park Willie Wallace’s move to Australia left a void on Dundee’s coaching staff. “I asked Tommy Gemmell if he would consider me for the reserve manager’s job. Tam agreed, and not long after, I sat my SFA coaching badges with Craig Brown and Andy Roxburgh. I must have done well because the following season I was invited back as a staff coach.”

But despite what looked like a seamless transition that allowed Scott to nurse his players through reserve games while he played, he still faced a dilemma familiar to all young coaches.

“You’ve always got that question: ‘what am I going to give them?’ when it comes to training. That’s where you stand or fall. I’ve seen so many coaches over the years that have a good knowledge of the game but for whatever reason they can’t translate that to practical, useful sessions, training that gets the players’ buy-in and gets carried into games. It is when you see work first hand that you can really tell the true calibre of a coach.

“You need to have a grasp of the why and the how. I fell back on the best of what I’d been exposed to myself, guys like John Prentice and especially Jim McLean, who were both at Dundee.”

McLean was a coach at Dens for 18 months up until he succeeded Jerry Kerr as manager of Dundee United in 1971 and it is clear the debt that a then group of senior Dark Blues’ players felt for the Dundee United manager. Following the Dees’ League Cup win over Celtic in 1973, Scott was among a group of players known as the “Broughty Ferry Six” that left a celebratory dinner in the Angus Hotel to visit McLean at his home, as a gesture of thanks. The players were later fined by their furious manager Davie White and Scott, George Stewart and Gordon Wallace all found themselves moved on from Dens in short order.

Jocky Scott recalled the incident in a 2014 Scotsman interview, saying: “I don’t regret it because we did it because of what he had contributed to us as players, individually and collectively.

“The last season he was at Dens – 1970/71 – was I think my best ever campaign and I got a couple of Scottish caps. His demands were just very high. If you fell below them, that is when he would start ranting and raving. He got the best out of you.”

Scott believes that the decline in mass participation playing culture, at all levels, has created a different kind of professional player – and largely not for the better. “There just isn’t that culture of street football, games with pals and disorganised bounce games where you’d play against all sorts of players of all sorts of ages. That football creates tough, technical players and we’ve lost that production line of players for professional football.

“I was playing against 18-year old-boys, men, at the age of 13 and with that physical disadvantage to overcome I had to learn how to play in that environment, use the skills I had to put those players under pressure.”

While the common assumption is that the deficit is felt in skill, heart and spontaneity, Jocky says there is another dimension to the generation gap that is never addressed.

“As tough, self-taught footballers, we arrived at clubs ready to play and all the coaching we needed was tactical or about how to play in a team. Current team players by necessity will always look to their coaches to fill in the gaps in their learning for them. That resilience and self-reliance isn’t there as a rule and you’ll see that reflected in games where players fall in and out of things without control or consistency. I was always coached as a team member, not as an individual – that wasn’t necessary for players then.”

Scott’s teams are known for the co-operation of their team’s individual units and specifically partnerships with complementary strengths – wide players that defend and attack in consort; a central midfield that can both create and destroy; and most notably a strike pairing that together have the capacity to take the ball in and run in behind. It is clear that he reserves significant fondness for the partnership of Tommy Coyne and Keith Wright that he brought to Dundee.

“They complemented each other so well. Keith was such a powerful runner and Coyne had great ability on the ball. I bought them for a total of £125,000 and they realised £2m in combined fees when they were sold. And I had two very good strikers in James Grady and Eddie Annand in my second spell at Dundee – two great players for me.”

Coyne excelled with Celtic and Motherwell after leaving Dundee and went on to win 22 caps for the Republic of Ireland. Wright was capped for Scotland but is best known as a League Cup final scorer as Hibs won the 1992 trophy against Scott’s Dunfermline.

For fans though, Scott is synonymous with the exotic, double cup-winning Aberdeen side co-managed with Alex Smith and Drew Jarvie that lost out on a Premier League win in controversial circumstances in a last day of the season defeat at Ibrox, where back-up keeper Michael Watt was fatally compromised after being cynically clattered early in the game by Rangers’ centre-forward Mark Hateley.

Scott says that in terms of ability, that Aberdeen side would rank as the most talented group of players he worked with. “They were a group of high-level footballers. You could just tell them what you wanted – there was no need to show them.”

That team combined the best aspects of a modern Scottish mentality, augmented by the stellar Dutchmen Hans Gillhaus, Theo Snelders, Peter van de Ven and Willem van der Ark. The Dutch influence came about due to a connection with the agent Ton van Dalen, and the esteem that the Dons and Scottish football generally were held in 30 years ago is underlined by the fact that Gillhaus came to Pittodrie as a European Cup winner with PSV who moved to Scotland to maintain his place in the Netherlands squad after finding his first team opportunities limited at a star-studded PSV.

Scott says: “With Theo Snelders proving such a success, there was an enthusiasm on the club’s part to look at Dutch players because they fitted the way we wanted to play. We wouldn’t sign any player without seeing them play first so I caught a flight to Holland and watched Gillhaus. It was clear right away that with his qualities, he’d allow us to challenge. We needed to move quickly and Alex Smith went in to see Dick Donald to get it done. A short time later, Alex came out and said: ‘This one’s on you. The chairman wants to speak to you’. So, I was asked to justify myself. He said: ‘Is he going to help us Jocky, or will he turn out to be a waste of money?’ I said: “I’ve no doubt he’ll improve us. In fact, he’s exactly what we need.”

Jocky says: “Even at that time, you’d get fans moaning that the chairman was stingy and that the club should spend to compete with Rangers with all those internationals. But there’s no question that Dick Donald backed his managers. He spent £750,000 on Gillhaus, a European Cup winner, who’d been bought to replace Ruud Gullit and who was being kept out of the PSV side by Romario.”

Craig Brown says: “You can focus on Jocky’s strengths – as a manager, on the training pitch, developing talent, especially strikers, or even as an analyst of teams. But you shouldn’t forget his eye for a player. Leigh Griffiths was another of his signings at Dundee. Griffiths’ career record speaks for itself now but it took Jocky to back his judgement that here was a player that was ready to step up to a bigger stage.”

Scott though maintains a singular perspective on the players whose paths he’s crossed in the last half century. Rab Douglas, Barry Smith and James Grady are just as likely to raise a smile of satisfaction, for the careers they’ve had, as the supremely talented stars he’s managed such as Griffiths and Gillhaus whose progress was always going to be a product of special ability as well as ambition, commitment and strength of character. Perhaps, because it was the absence of these more commonplace attributes that defined Scott’s last foray into management at Stirling that ensures that his last stop as a manager is the manager’s one notable career low – both for Stirling fans and Scott alike.

He says of his 2011 stop-off at Forthbank: “There’s no doubt that my experience in the full-time game and my mentality didn’t prepare me for working with part-time players. My expectations were too high and I blame myself. It wasn’t fair on me and it wasn’t fair on them.

“For players with good day jobs, part-time football is really a hobby rather than a job. It reflects the lack of money in the game outwith a few clubs and the fact boys have to make compromises to put food on the table for their families. But the downside of that is that standards are less and that the players just don’t care as much.”

The result for Jocky is that while he enjoys the idea of football and coaching as much as he ever did, the frustration of watching games means that he’s seldom found in the stands these days. He says: “It’s far more rare for a player to remake their career at a part-time club, do well and move back up to full-time football than it was. Now the player tends to find his level and stick there.

An anecdote from the last days of Scott’s short stay at Forthbank underlines the point. “When I played, the convention was that the manager would come in and have his say while the players sat in silence and when he left, the players would conduct their own post-mortem – usually with a frank exchange of views. At Stirling, I asked my assistant John Blackley to tell me what the boys had said after a particularly bad defeat. He said a couple of them were asking about racing results and others wanted to know how Celtic and Rangers had got on. The game, the result, was gone for them already. I just couldn’t get my head round that.”

He says: “I enjoyed the training as much as ever but I didn’t enjoy the games. The reality as a manager is that you’re judged in terms of results – the one aspect of your week’s work that you are totally reliant on your players. They decide whether or not you’ll have a job the following week. There were two jobs where I thought I was banging my head against a brick wall – at Stirling and Arbroath – and both of those were part-time situations.”

Scott says that with the clear divide between Scotland’s top two and bottom two divisions that there is a demarcation between players and coaches. He says: “It is quite rare for managers and players to thrive equally at part-time and full-time clubs. Take my pal Dick Campbell. His record at part-time teams is superb but on the two occasions where he’s stepped up to full-time, at Partick and Ross County, it didn’t work out for him, for whatever reason. It was the opposite of that for me.”

For Craig Brown, Aberdeen’s Dutch experiment between 1998-1991 gives a tantalising glimpse into what might have been had Scott been able to work at the highest level with universally top class players for far more of his career. He says: “Ultimately, it is about the players. The better players you have, the better chance you’ve got.”

Publicly at least it is not something that Scott is likely to give too much thought to. “There’s obviously things you’d do differently given a second chance. In retrospect, taking the jobs at Arbroath and Stirling was something I shouldn’t have done. And I wonder if I should have stayed longer at Aberdeen, rather than going to Dunfermline. Two months after going there I knew I’d made a mistake but at the same time Aberdeen had started their season poorly, probably with a hangover from losing the league at Ibrox, so you never really know how things would work out.”

Scott says: “I look back on my career and I have to be happy with what I achieved. As a player and coach, I’ve won a few trophies, helped a few players do well. It is nice to reminisce, especially with friends I played with. It was my choices to go where I went so any fault or blame is mine. Honestly, I can’t have any complaints.” 

This article first appeared in Issue 16 which was published in March 2020.

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