Renaissance man: how Ian McCall revived Ayr United and, in turn, his career
Ian McCall was Scottish football’s forgotten man five years ago. The radio appearances, colour pieces in the ‘Sundays’ and co-commentary gigs were increasingly few and far between; the job offers non-existent. He did not want to leave Partick Thistle three years and eight months previously; he had to. Renewed and ready to return to the fold, he found the game was moving on without him.
Things were equally bleak at Somerset Park. A part-time club in Scotland’s third tier, ten years had passed since the Honest Men had a foothold in what is now the Championship [two separate seasons in Division 1 under Brian Reid both ended in relegation]. More pressing, the side were on a run of form that saw them take just three points from a possible 30 in League 1, including six consecutive home league defeats, leaving them in ninth place. Underachievement and dissatisfaction had developed into deep discontent and a crowd of just 646 witnessed the final act of Mark Roberts’ two-and-a-half year tenure as manager, a 3–2 defeat at home to Stenhousemuir.
Billy Stark was believed to be the director’s choice to replace Roberts; his strong track record of developing young players at Queen’s Park and Scotland U21s aligned with the club’s focus on its Football Academy; but a transatlantic conversation between Lachlan Cameron and Ian McCall — and character references from Neil Lennon and Derek McInnes — gave McCall the opportunity he craved.
His first five months at the club were all about ensuring survival in League 1. There was no discernable managerial bounce, little evidence of an upturn in fortunes as McCall’s Ayr picked up just 17 points out of a possible 54. In addressing malcontent within the dressing-room though, Ayr survived on the final day of the season.
“I think Ayr can be a thriving Championship club and that’s how I want to leave them”.
After achieving the immediate aim of staying in League 1, McCall set about his broader aspiration of establishing Ayr United in the Championship. Just two months into a second season in Scotland’s second teir it is too early say ‘job done’, however, there is no doubt the fortunes of the club have been improved. Now full-time, the Honest Men are set to once again challenge at the top of the Championship this season, as underlined by last weekend’s 2–0 win over favourites Dundee United. That form continued into Saturday where Ian McCall’s Ayr United produced one of its best performances in what proved to be his final game. United’s first-half performance at Alloa on Saturday was described by the manager as “the best I’ve ever seen one of my teams play”.
Speaking to Graham Spiers a few months into his first full season at Ayr McCall described how identifying good players, making them better and creating a good environment at a club remained the fundamentals of good management; these core principles have been the basis of his success at Somerset Park. McCall gave the club an identity; a robust strategy for the type of football played by the first team and the type of footballer brought to the club, all of which was encapsulated at the Indrodrill Stadium. Fast, attacking, play; fluidity and neat interchanges and a team with the right balance of youth and experience. It is this that has taken Ayr from League 1 also-rans to the Championship, albeit with one stalled attempt.
Throughout his tenure, McCall has favoured playing 442, primarily with one wide midfielder and one winger. This season, that 442 has evolved to become a 433 (partly in thanks to the lacklustre impact of Kris Doolan and the emergence of Luke McCowan as important first team player). Regardless of the minutiae, it has been an consistent approach that has made Ayr United an attacking, attractive and free-scoring team over the last two years.
Aligned with this style of play, arguably more significant has been McCall’s recruitment strategy. He has built a squad where there majority of players fall into two distinct profiles:
Firstly, the old pros. Mark Kerr, signed midway through the League 1 title-winning season, typifies this group but Andy Graham, Paddy Boyle, Andy Geggan and Steven Bell all fit the identikit: over 30, many have played for McCall before and most had been captains of their club at some point. McCall could rely on these players to do their jobs and, with their experience, provide a professional approach to the dressing room and winning mentality.
Secondly, younger players from Scotland’s bigger clubs (most notably, Aberdeen, due to McCall’s connection with Derek McInnes). McCall was able to persuade players who hadn’t quite made the grade to come to Ayr United to further their careers and support them to go onto ‘better’ things. The headline act for this archetype is Lawrence Shankland, but you can also count Michael Rose, Liam Smith and Declan McDaid as players whose careers have been kick-started by Ian McCall (just as he had done with Stephen Dobbie a decade ago). All four players — plus Nicky Devlin and Robbie Crawford who McCall inherited — have gone onto bigger clubs after playing a huge part in the club’s success under McCall.
His contribution to reviving careers focuses as much on the man as the player; moulding the mind rather than the technique. Lawrence Shankland has attributed the remarkable turnaround in his career — he has scored 75 goals in his last 85 games — down to working harder, getting himself as fitter, all at the behest of McCall, and subsequently regaining his confidence by playing games and scoring goals.
A key part of this is that McCall incessantly talks up his younger players: “The best centre-back in the league”; “The best kept secret in Scottish football”; “Enjoy him while you can, he won’t be here next season”.
Scotland under 21 left-back Daniel Harvie (already labelled the ‘best full-back in the the Championship’ by McCall) and Sam Roscoe, both signed from Aberdeen, are next on the rank to follow the same career progression while contributing, hopefully, to the club establishing itself in the Championship.
Alongside the players he has picked up following their release, some of Scotland’s best young talents from the country’s biggest clubs have been sent to Somerset Park on loan, recognition of Ian McCall’s approach and his contacts in the game. This season, goalkeeper Ross Doohan from Celtic, his second season at the club, and midfielder Stephen Kelly from Rangers — both Scotland U21s — are important players, while previously Ross McCrorie and Scott McKenna were at the club (admittedly, with various levels of success).
Always, whether old or young, it has been the ‘right sort’; footballers who can contribute to McCall’s approach to the game and characters who help achieve that positive environment at the club. Half-way through Ian McCall’s tenure at Ayr United, following relegation from the Championship, the button was pressed on the club becoming full-time. From this point onwards, the style of play and recruitment have perfectly aligned to provide arguably the best two-and-a-bit years in the club’s recent history; testament to McCall’s principles.
I wanted to prove to myself — and no-one else — that I could still do it.”
Ian McCall has never lacked belief in his own ability. Perhaps, he did wonder during the wilderness years whether he would ever get another opportunity in the game but, but from day one at Somerset Park he exuded confidence in what he doing, relying on his experience and those core values of football management.
At one time, McCall appeared content to see out his career at Ayr United. “As a manager, I’d think Ayr will be my last club. You never say never but I’m always conscious of what Lachlan did for me”, he said in December 2017. His only ambition at that time was for Ayr United and building a strong community club established in the Championship.
But something changed. Last season, as Ayr confounded all expectations by mounting a Championship title challenge, other clubs began to panic. Paul Hartley was quickly emptied by Falkirk just a month into the season, and the Bairns sought out the services of McCall and Mark Kerr. A short conversation with the Falkirk Board left them disappointed: “I couldn’t have left. I couldn’t have done it to the chairman.”
Thirteen months later, he did do it to chairman Lachlan Cameron. The reason? Partick Thistle. Shortly after Falkirk sacked Paul Hartley, fellow strugglers Thistle, having been relegated from the Premiership the previous season, relieved Alan Archibald of his position; McCall moved to squash any speculation, ruling out replacing his former charge, Archibald. But you sense at that point McCall had proved to himself that he could still do it; and that personal ambition had returned to the 54-year-old.
McCall’s profile rose as United went on to finish fourth in the Championship. Previously content to fly under the radar, he increasingly became seen in the media and heard on the radio. He never hid the special relationship he had with Lachlan Cameron and the huge personal debt he owed the American: “I had come through a lot and Lachlan was the full stop for me”. But the end of last season also, in some way, was a full stop. Full time in United’s final game, a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful play-off second-leg tie in Inverness, was an emotional occasion. It felt like the end of an era, with the understanding that Shankland, Rose and Smith — and perhaps others — would be departing the club. It must have been difficult for McCall to find the resolve to go again; it is another feather in his cap how well the club has adjusted to the loss of five key players from last season (with Robbie Crawford and Declan McDaid also departing).
Some have criticised the Lachlan Cameron for not doing more to hold on to Ian McCall. If we are not ‘Wee Ayr United’ anymore — as Ian McCall was keen to point out — why were we allowing a rival club to waltz in and take our manager? The truth is nothing was going to stop McCall leaving for Thistle, ‘his club’, on this occasion. The time was right to leave Ayr and the time was right to return to the club he did not want to leave eight years ago; there may not have been another opportunity. And if anyone knows the value of an opportunity, it’s Ian McCall.