FIN GILLIES wears his heart on his sleeve. On the touchline, he leans into every tackle, sways with every sidestep and flinches at every dropped pass, during each and every Glasgow Hawks match. Afterwards, you can always rely on the former Warriors hooker to give a candid and honest assessment of what he is really thinking.
He reckons this impetuosity might be because he has been the youngest head coach in the Premiership for these last three seasons [he turns 30 in February], having hung up his professional boots back in 2014 following two neck operations and a series of knee injuries.
“Maybe I’m not grown up enough to put a lid on it, but I’ll always say what I think – sometimes I am right and sometimes I am wrong – and sometimes it gets me in trouble – so maybe I need to get a bit better at articulating what is on my mind,” he reflects. “I just can’t shut it off. It takes a lot out of me – my wife will tell you that – I put a lot into it and it takes a lot out of me.”
In reality, age and experience has nothing to do with it – it is just his personality. And he shouldn’t be too hard on himself – his straightforward approach has earned widespread respect in and around the club game.
“That’s the way I have always operated,” he concedes, after a moment of reflection. “Isn’t that the way every passionate person is? We do whatever we do because we want to, not because people are forcing us. And if it takes a wee bit of you, then that’s a price worth paying to feed that drive inside.”
Such fervency is admirable, but it can be a heavy cross to bear when you just can’t seem to catch a break, and as head coach of Hawks during the last 18-months, Gillies has not had his troubles to seek.
A sink-hole which appeared at Hawks’ Old Anniesland base during the summer of 2017 forced the club into a nomadic existence for much of last season, and they then suffered a grievous blow when they were not chosen as a Super 6 club back at the beginning of May, meaning that Scotland’s biggest city will not be represented in this new league when it is launched at the start of next season.
Given that the club was founded 21 years ago with the specific purpose of ensuring that Glasgow would always be represented at the top of the Scottish club game, this was a huge set-back which brought into question in some quarters whether there was any point in Hawks carrying on.
Gillies and his team gave their own emphatic answer to that question just two days after the Super 6 decision was announced, rattling 46 unanswered points past Jed-Forest in a play-off match which secured their top-flight status for the current season.
Looking to the future
Hawks have since taken the positive step of finding a suitable base by linking up with Kelvinside Academy to set up camp at Balgray, with plans being hatched to develop the facility over the next couple of seasons to a level befitting a club with aspirations of being a leading a light in the Scottish game.
But it is still a battle, especially on the park this season. Recruitment wasn’t easy after missing out on Super 6, while the decision to disband the 2nd XV in an effort to strengthen relations with other clubs in the area was taken with the best of intentions but has made it hard to build continuity within the squad, and that has been exacerbated by some appalling luck with injuries – with captain Steve Leckie, vice-captain Steven Findlay, last season’s Scotland Under-20s half-backs Ross Thomson and Kaleem Barreto, influential centre Mark New and tyro prop Andrew Nimmo among the key figures to have missed significant chunks of the season. Meanwhile, hooker Grant Stewart, who is still ostensibly an academy player, has spent most of the season away on Glasgow Warriors duty.
“How do you deal with it?” Gillies asks himself. “The best you can,” he eventually answers.
“Thankfully, I have some good people around me. Hilly and Dougal [assistant coaches Andy Hill and Andrew Douglas] help the best they can, but they’re more inexperienced than I am. So, there is not that much experience for us to draw on – but, I suppose, nobody has really dealt with these problems before, so I’m not sure whether extra experience would really help.
“We know we’re not getting everything right, but everyone is trying their best in a very, very difficult situation.”
When asked about the specific impact of missing out on Super 6, Gillies gives a typically forthright answer.
“It made recruitment hard – definitely – we actually ended up losing guys who we hoped we wouldn’t lose and it was due to Super Six,” he explains. “And we lost certain people [recruits] who we thought we had got over the line, but they ended up getting taken away from us.
“That’s just the way it is. I can understand it, especially with young players coming through who don’t want to come here for one year knowing that next year they need to be looking to go off and find a Super 6 franchise, whereas they can get a bit more consistency with an Ayr or Stirling.
“We were told that wasn’t going to be the case – and I’m sure that wasn’t the intention – but that is the reality. Ultimately, the players have to do what is right for them because the days of staying at the same club throughout your career are long gone.
“There is a silly season in the Premiership and it became a bit more silly this year. It was crazy with the amount of to-ing and fro-ing which was going on.
“With regards to how it has affected us on a day-to-day basis, I don’t really know,” he continues. “Obviously, everything has changed this year with us – change of venue, change of squad, change of aspirations – so to pick up one thing in or around Super 6 would be very difficult.
“What is making it tough is not knowing. People ask questions about what is going to happen next and I genuinely don’t have the answer. Firstly, because I have a lot of other things which can potentially influence what is happening right now that I feel like I should be focussing on instead. Secondly, because it looks like the SRU have made their decision and I’m certainly not going to be the one who changes it, so I just have to see what emerges like everybody else.”
A busy boy
Gillies has naturally been linked with taking on a Super 6 role, and he makes no secret of his ambition to go as far as he can as a coach, but he wasn’t really in a position to give up a permanent contract as a PE teacher at the High School of Glasgow for a short-term deal in the new league at this stage in his life. He is recently married and in the process of buying a house. He is also in the first of two years completing his UKCC Level 4 coaching qualification.
“As you can imagine, my wife is delighted with how little she gets to see of me,” he smiles.
The future beyond the end of this season is unclear for both Gillies and Hawks, but the priority must be the here and now. Hawks have managed only two wins from 13 league outings this season and last weekend’s defeat to Hawick leaves them second-bottom of the Premiership table, ahead only of winless Edinburgh Accies. It is not clear at this stage whether there will be relegation or not, but the real challenge is something a bit more fundamental and relates to the sense of the club’s worth.
“Morale in the squad fine,” Gillies insists. “Players are players – they hate losing. But they seem to enjoy being part of the club, they seemed to enjoy training tonight even if they are on the baize [at the club’s makeshift training ground at Craigholme School on the South Side of the city]. They’ll come and work hard, and they’ll take something out of the session. That’s all we can give them at the minute, and that’s what we are going to continue to do.
“I’m sure the questions around Super 6 do hang over the players’ heads, but they don’t ever bring it here. I don’t think the words ‘Super 6’ ever get mentioned here. We’ve got enough problems to worry about before feeling sorry for ourselves about that.
“If people like Ross [Thomson] and Kaleem [Barreto] are using us as a shop window, and they play the best rugby they can to show Super 6 clubs what they can do, then that’s fine with us.
“The problems we as a coaching team are trying to solve at the moment relate to how we beat Currie Chieftains on Saturday, and how we solve some of the issues we saw against Hawick last weekend. We’ve got enough on our plate as it is before worrying about next season. That sounds like such a cliché but it is the reality – we need to pick up a result somewhere. Hawick did it in a quagmire against Chieftains two weeks ago which clearly gave them a big boost. You win one big game and all of a sudden everything just seems that little bit easier.
“We are still going into every game believing we have a chance. We have a better chance in some games than others, but there is nobody in this league we don’t think we can beat on our day, if we get everything right. The coin is going to have to flip the right way for us at some point, but at the moment it keeps dropping on the wrong side.
“We, as coaches, are trying our best and working our hardest. And the players are trying their best and working their hardest. It’s just unfortunate that there are some good teams in this league who, if we are being totally honest, are in a better place than us in terms of their set-up and their facilities. We’re on a wee bit of a catch-up at the minute.
“But I’ve said to the players that every single person sitting in that changing room owes the club something, and it is really time to start putting back. I think it is time for all of us to take stock of that – including myself.
“The taking stops – it is time to start giving back – and it would be really nice if some of that generosity was experienced elsewhere with people getting behind us rather than seeing us as this annoyance. We are trying to do something good here.”