WHILE the vast majority of Scottish clubs are easing into their off-season, there is no time to draw breath at Fort Matilda. Greenock Wanderers are currently third in West Regional League 2 but have games in hand over both East Kilbride and Allan Glen’s meaning that they need eight points from their final two matches to secure promotion back into the National Leagues. They host Allan Glen’s this Saturday in what looks like being a make-or-break occasion in their league campaign, and then Annan on 3rd May. In between those two matches, there is the not insignificant matter of an appearance at Murrayfield in the final of the National Shield against Berwick.
Furthermore, the women’s team will also be at Murrayfield for Finals Day, having defeated West of Scotland at the weekend to book their place in the denouement of the Bowl competition. While the Under-15 boys team have a Chairman’s Trophy Final clash against Allan Glen’s to play before the end of the month.
“It’s been a really long season, the 1st XV will have played 27 competitive matches by the time we are done, but the guys are really enjoying their rugby at the moment, and they are getting a lot of out of it, which helps keep the show on the road,” says Steven Haldane, the club’s Vice President of Rugby.
These are exciting times, all the more so because it was not so long ago that Wanderers appeared to be in freefall. In 2015-16 they finished rock bottom of National League 2 having lost all 22 games, with a negative differential of 874, managing just two losing bonus points over the course of the season and suffering a three-point deduction for failing to raise a team to go to Aberdeenshire.
The following season was equally cataclysmic. They did manage one win in National League 3 but lost all their other 21 matches to finish bottom of the heap yet again, this time ending up with a negative differential of 1104.
“There were a few issues with what was happening at the club and we had to take some drastic action,” says Haldane, who is a former 1st XV captain but then floated away for a while after being forced to hang up his boots early due to a knee issue. He initially got back involved as a coach to the Under-18s team, and by this point had taken on a similar role with the women’s team, where he has a vested interest because his daughters, Caitlyn and Erin, are key members of the squad.
“There was a management team and management structure which wasn’t working, they got rid of a set of coaches and put in a chap who was obviously not capable of running the team, and our results plummeted,” Haldane explains. “We were getting thrashed by 70, 80 or 90 points, and we were haemorrhaging players.
“I took guidance from senior members of the rugby community in the west and the feeling was that what was happening wasn’t cyclical, it was terminal. So, myself and a few others agreed that we had to do something to get things back on track, or the club was in very real danger of going to the wall, and there ended up being what you might call a coup against the people who were running the club at that time.
“An SGM was called and we managed to convince John Black to get on board. John is a club legend who had moved on to become President at Birkmyre because he was living up that way near Kilmacolm – but he was always meant to be president of Greenock Wanderers and he agreed that if I was going to be Vice President then he would be President – and we built a management team around that.”
After plateauing last year to finish eighth in West League One with a record of seven wins, 12 losses and two draws, this season has witnessed considerable progress on the pitch. “It’s all looking reasonably good, but we have fingers and toes and eyes crossed, because there are still two games to go, not to mention Silver Saturday,” says Haldane. “We’ve played Allan Glen’s twice this season, both times away at their place, and we won both games. We are still regarding ourselves as under-dogs but we’re confident we can put on a good show on Saturday We don’t have to win it, but we definitely need a score draw and to then get a big win against Annan on 4th May.
“We grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat in the semi-final, and now we have Berwick in the Shield Final a week on Saturday, who we really don’t know very much about. We have been living week to week because each game has been so important to us.”
A key ingredient in Greenock’s change in fortunes was the return of head coach Graham Knox, who was one of the individuals elbowed out when things were unravelling and spent a couple of seasons overseeing the backs at Cartha Queens Park. A further boost was persuading Gary Grant, who had planned to take a year out after his stint as head coach at Cartha, to also join the coaching staff.
“What is absolutely clear to me now is that it is all about the coaches and the culture they create within the team,” says Haldane. “We’re getting around 45 guys training on a Thursday night now, they have to train to get in the 2nd XV, which has really helped raise standards. Having that right coaching mentality attracts the players. The trick now is to keep it going.
“We then had a few quiet chats with some of the players who had become disillusioned and gone off to play elsewhere, like Brendan McGroarty, Callum Harrison and Leigh Tyley, who had all gone to Hawks, plus Matt Gray and Andy McDougall, who had ended up at Cartha. We managed to persuade them to return and put something back into the club, and because we had the right coaching set-up they did all come back, which has been a huge boost.”
Greenock’s destiny is in their own hands, and while the cost and hassle of playing in the national leagues is a daunting prospect for some regional league clubs, it is not an issue for the Fort Matilda outfit.
“The biggest concern we have is not offering players ambition,” says Haldane. “We have a pretty strong youth section and we need to have a senior team that those youngsters aspire to be a part of because otherwise they are going to go elsewhere. We are only 40 minutes from Glasgow and/or from Ayr, so we know that there will be clubs looking to suck them into their environments.
“Plus, we need to go up to retain the coaches we’ve got because they are ambitious individuals as well, and they’ve both coached at National One level, so we need to demonstrate to them that they are not just treading water here.
“We were in National Two not that long ago and I think that’s where we can get to again with the right infrastructure at the club.
“Every club is different, but we take the view that if we try to stand still then we’re just going to end up falling backwards.”