After another season of managerial musical chairs, both Dundee and Inverness were the clubs left standing after the music stopped. Dundee have opted to take a chance on Neil McCann, after unsuccessfully courting Jack Ross.
One man linked, but rarely touted for jobs of this size is Dumbarton manager Stevie Aitken, and with the Caley Thistle vacancy unfilled and inevitable managerial casualties next season, we take a look at his credentials for a full-time role.
Clearly the bottom line for any club in assessing a candidate is their track record. At a glance, Aitken’s is certainly impressive. After returning to Stranraer as a player in 2009, he took up the manager’s role in October 2012, with the club bottom of Division 2. He proceeded to keep them up with victory on the final day of the season, and never looked back.
After securing their place in the newly rebranded League One, Aitken produced a rebranding of his own. Despite working with one of the smallest budgets in the league, the former Morton midfielder led the Blues to third, bested only by full-time Rangers and Dunfermline, losing to the latter in extra-time in the fight for promotion.
Not content with this Stranraer went one better in 2014/15, taking Jim Duffy’s Morton to the final day in the race for the title, before running out of steam in the play-offs.
As well as exceeding expectations in the league, Aitken’s Stranraer also produced some impressive cup results- defeating Ross County 3-2 in the League Cup in 2013, and taking Inverness to a replay in the Scottish Cup later that season.
At Dumbarton Aitken has delivered, at least in terms of raw numbers, incremental improvement in his two seasons at the club. Again on one of the smallest budgets in the league, the Sons have registered two 8th place finishes, and won more games, scored more goals and conceded fewer this season, than they did in Aitken’s first.
The holy grail of Scottish football management is the ability to squeeze every last drop out of ever-shrinking finances, and this has been a hallmark of Aitken’s work.
In his first full season at Stair Park he brought in Martin Grehan- who would bag 13 league goals- Andy Stirling and Mark Docherty- both of whom would earn a full-time contract at other clubs after outstanding seasons. Despite losing these key players, Aitken rebuilt the squad and achieved seemingly impossible progression.
He showed a keen eye for a rough diamond when plucking defender Craig Pettigrew from Auchinleck Talbot, who proved instrumental in helping the team concede the fewest in the league. He also brought former Kilmarnock winger Willie Gibson in from the relative obscurity of Workington Town, and who would repay him with 9 goals and plenty of assists.
At Dumbarton Aitken has helped the club become a launch pad for players looking to make the jump, or break the fall, from full-time football. Gregor Buchanan was not much fancied by Allan Johnston at Dunfermline but his solid performances in a Sons’ shirt have earned him a deal at St Mirren for next season.
Hamilton reserve goalkeeper Alan Martin was signed in 2016 and has recently joined Queen of the South after interest from England and the Scottish Premiership, following some eye-catching displays. While striker Robert Thomson bagged 11 goals and 4 assists after joining from Brechin last summer- which convinced Jim Duffy to offer him a contract.
Aitken has consistently proven he has an eye for a player, and his ability to recruit well and then rebuild after the loss of key men is a priceless commodity given the modern day Scottish club model.
Any Stranraer fan will tell you that Aitken delivered some of the finest football the club has seen for many a year. He got the best out of mercurial wingers Andy Stirling and Willie Gibson, rejuvenating the latter following a disappointing career trajectory.
This allowed strikers like Jamie Longworth, Martin Grehan and Craig Malcolm to flourish, all reaching double figures in the goal charts under Aitken’s tenure.
At Dumbarton Aitken has had his critics for the team’s style of play, often opting for a more direct approach. In the first half of this season there were many calling for his head after crashing out of the Scottish Cup to Bonnyrigg Rose, failing to put a single goal past the junior side in two attempts.
However like any good coach, he learned his lesson, telling Sons’ TV recently: “We realised it wasn’t right [after the cup defeat] we had to freshen things up and admit we got things wrong.”
As well as showing more competency in the free transfer market after bringing in the likes of Lewis Vaughan, Christian Nade and former Motherwell midfielder Stuart Carswell in January, Aitken also adapted the team’s style of play. He went more attacking and less rigid, which worked.
Following the Bonnyrigg defeat the team increased their goals per game to 1.5, up from 0.9. This won the team an average of 1.2 points per game- compared to previously picking up less than 1 per game.
This ultimately secured the club’s Championship status, illustrating a tactical string to Aitken’s bow.
Worth the gamble?
Of course, giving Stevie Aitken the chance to step up a level is a gamble. His predecessor Ian Murray’s time at St Mirren is arguably testament to that. Plus as noted, Aitken’s time at Dumbarton has not been critic free.
Having just signed a new two-year deal, perhaps continuing his part-time apprenticeship is what’s needed to rubber-stamp his credentials- particularly with a reportedly even smaller budget to work with at Dumbarton next season.
But even ‘safe’ managerial appointments have an inherent risk, there are no certainties in football anymore. Appointing someone with a history of shrewd recruitment, maximising limited resources and playing decent football is as good a bet as any.
Inverness, and others, could do worse than roll the dice on Stevie Aitken.