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Thomas Courts On Dundee United, Working Abroad And Returning To Management

Thomas Courts On Dundee United, Working Abroad And Returning To Management

An interview with Tam Courts, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

As a player, you represented clubs such as Livingston, Cowdenbeath and Kelty Hearts. How would you describe Thomas Courts, the footballer? 

“When I was a youngster at Livingston, they had a strong team who were catapulting themselves through the Scottish leagues under the leadership of Dominic Keane as chairman and a group of investors.

“The club was so aggressively ambitious at the time that it was difficult for me to make a sustained breakthrough into the first team.

“They always had the biggest budget in the league that they were playing in until promotion to the Scottish Premiership was secured.

“Despite that, I represented the first team on five occasions and learned a lot from my time at the club.

“I also went on loan to Cowdenbeath and playing regularly for them and helped the club achieve promotion to Scottish League One – as it is known today.

“I was seen as a centre-back with high potential when I was younger but I did not develop as much as I would have liked to and I fell out of the senior game which led to me joining Kelty Hearts who were a strong junior team at the time.

“How my playing career went has been incredibly useful for me as a manager when dealing with players because I know what it is like to go through highs and lows as a player.

“That enables me to be able to guide them and support them as best I can by emphasising to them that I know what they are going through as young players or as they progress through their career.

“In particular, I believe that I am able to connect strongly with younger players in the modern game due to these experiences.”

You became a manager in your early thirties at Kelty Hearts having initially stepped up from captain to become player-manager. How would you reflect back on your formative months in management upon your appointment?

“I had aspirations to be a coach or a manager from my early twenties, to be honest.

“I always found myself in leadership roles as the captain of the football clubs that I played for and naturally, I always demanded high standards so becoming a manager in the future was on my mind early on in my career.

“I took results personally when I was a player because I am obsessive when it comes to the game of football.

“I always want to achieve success and progression. That was the same when I was a player and I have carried that into my managerial career.

“When I went in at Kelty as manager at the age of 32, I had a belief that I could take the club on to another level.

“The way the role came around was similar to how things occurred at Dundee United years later because I took charge for one match to allow an incoming manager to come in having agreed a move to the club.

“I think that short stint in charge gave the club an insight into what I would be like should I become a manager in future.

“That led to me being appointed as manager when the club made another change in management not too long after I had taken charge of that one game.

“From taking charge of the team on a permanent basis, I started out as player-manager and I actually found the experience of doing that to be beneficial to me long term.

“The reason I say that is because you make mistakes when you enter management because you want to impart your way of playing and working on the club right away.

“However, the team that I inherited at Kelty had not won a game in twenty attempts so a lot of work was needed on the team.

“Initially, the biggest impact that I had on the team when I took charge was on the pitch as I was still a capable player at this point.

“Playing games after a tough spell for the club enabled me to attack the job from two angles and have the unique insight of being able to affect games on the field as well as off the field.

“That is not to say that being a player-manager does not have its challenges because it does. You go from being a player alongside your teammates to being the person with the final say on matters.

“Although, playing during those first few months helped me work out how to get to the club on to an even keel and focus on a plan for the club going forward in order to move forward from the underperformance of the team that I inherited.”

You transformed the club from such a long unbeaten run to going on to win three East of Scotland league titles and the King Cup. Looking back, what do you think was key to transitioning the club from a period of struggle to one of sustained success?

 “In the first six or seven months of the job, my task was to avoid relegation from the East of Scotland league which we were able to do.

“Then, in the summer of 2014, we signed eleven new players on free transfers and that enabled me to be able to put my stamp on the team with my own group of players.

“It also allowed me to establish a winning culture across the club and implement a playing style that aligned with my footballing beliefs.

“Thankfully, the new players and shaping the group in my image as a coach paid off for us within twelve months as we won the East of Scotland league in my first full season as manager.

“We went from relegation contenders to league champions within twelve months which put us on the map as a club and enabled us to build a culture of sustained success in the next three years.

“We were regularly competing for league titles and we became one of the earliest adopted clubs into the new Lowland League system that would give non-league teams a chance to enter the Scottish Professional League system for the first time.

“I enjoyed the challenge of establishing the club in the Lowland League before I decided to leave the club while we were top of the Lowland League after ten games in 2018.

“My reason for leaving was due to my belief that I had taken the club in an upward trajectory over my five years in charge and due to my aspirations to work in the senior levels of Scottish football.

“I felt leaving at a time of success would allow the club to replace me with a manager who could commit to the club for the next three to five years and take the club forward with fresh ideas and impetus.

“I had been the manager for five years and achieved success and I believed that I left behind a structure and a group of players who could further succeed.

“Leaving at that time was a move that I believed would be best for all parties which it turned out to be as I moved on to Dundee United in the coming year while Kelty Hearts won two Lowland League titles before being promoted to Scottish League Two in 2021.”

You moved to Dundee United in 2020 and worked within the academy set up of the club before becoming first team manager of the club in 2021. First of all, how did your move to Dundee United happen?

“I went to Dundee United after Kelty Hearts because I believed that the club was set up in such a way that would allow me to learn and develop as a coach with younger players.

“I am always of the belief that if you work with smart people who have a vision that you will reap the rewards of that together.

“Andy Goldie was the academy director at the time when I arrived and he was young and ambitious which suited me.

“He assembled a high quality team and I wanted to be a part of an academy set up as my next step in coaching because I believed that I needed to work with younger players to ensure that I closed that skill gap having spent my coaching career with mostly senior players.

“I wanted to work on the player development side of the game because I had shown at Kelty that I could work on the performance side of the game.

“I was happy in my role then an opportunity to take charge of the first team for one game arose  due to Micky Mellon – who was then manager of Dundee United – had to self isolate after being a close contact of someone with COVID-19.

“This meant that I was propelled into taking first team training for the week leading up to a game again. That experience helped reawaken my desire to be a manager in my own right again.

“I enjoyed the one game experience but I never thought that the club would have the courage to appoint me as permanent first team manager in the summer of 2021 when Micky Mellon left the club to return to Tranmere Rovers.

“Before Micky had left the club, I talked to the club about possibly looking to become a coach elsewhere in the senior game to further my experience while retaining a link with Dundee United.

“However, thankfully they trusted me with the opportunity to become first team head coach when Micky moved on.

“The players commented that they had enjoyed my way of working during my short week in charge previously and the club having seen me work in the academy alongside the success I had achieved at Kelty, gave me the opportunity which I was incredibly grateful for.”

The reaction to you becoming manager was mixed within Scottish football media. There was an argument that you were a young up-and-coming coach who deserved the opportunity while there was another argument that you lacked the experience of working at senior level. How did you handle the noise surrounding you during this period?

“I was surprised by the reaction but only to an extent.

“However, Dundee United were in the Scottish Championship for a number of years prior to Micky Mellon keeping them in the Premiership during his sole year in charge.

“This all occurred during Covid when fans were locked out of games so I could understand why there was an apprehension to my appointment.

“The noise around me served as a reminder to the pressure and scrutiny that I would be under as manager.

“Although, I also knew this was an incredible opportunity for me to prove myself at a high level given that I was working at East of Scotland level five years prior to taking the job when I would have given everything for such an opportunity.

“I took those thoughts with me from the first day of the job until the last day of the job.”

In your first three games, you lost to rivals Aberdeen and ended Rangers’ domestic league unbeaten run, which had lasted in excess of a full league, season before beating St Johnstone who were just off the back of the best season in their history as domestic cup double winners. What are your memories of those opening games?

“The season started with the League Cup group stage in July which meant that we were playing competitive games in preseason so the pressure was on from day one.

“I made such an effort to ensure that we progressed through the group phase as the club had never done so previously and I felt that was an important early milestone for me.

“We achieved that then went into the league opener against Aberdeen which is always a massive game for Dundee United.

“We lost 2-0 and their was a big reaction to that defeat. That was the game before we would face Rangers who had not lost a game in the previous season so no one gave us a chance given those parameters heading into that game.

“At Tannadice against Rangers, we won 1-0 thanks to a goal from academy graduate Jamie Robson.

“I told the players after that game that from this moment on, we would be implementing a consistent approach to our set up in games.

“Previously, I was playing around with set ups and systems as I settled into the job but that was a turning point for us.

“From that result, we went on a good run of performances and results which got the fans inside right away.

“Maximising the performances of our senior players while giving opportunities to young players was my aim.

“I also knew that it was going to be a testing season for me and the club because Lawrence Shankland – our top scorer – was to be sold, as was Jeandro Fuchs who was another key player for us.

“Jamie Robson and Louis Appere were also sold and we were close to losing our goalkeeper Bemjiman Siegrist – who is now at Celtic.

“So, it was a testing season for me as a manager with lots to juggle.

“That being said, the wins in the League Cup and against Rangers and St Johnstone was a dream start in many ways given what we were juggling as players and staff.”

You managed the club in three Dundee derbies – winning one and drawing two. What were those games like to manage in?

“The derby games were really enjoyable and the first derby game was early on in the season in September.

“I remember it well as it was a glorious day in Dundee at Tannadice and both sets of fans turned up in their numbers as they always do on derby day.

“The game was a well-contested affair which we won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Ian Harkes.

“It was a game that I also selected 16-year-old Kerr Smith in who we later sold to Aston Villa for a seven-figure fee.

“The eruption of the fans at the goal and at full-time was incredible for everyone given how long they were locked out of games during lockdown.

“It was another win for my staff and I to showcase that we were worthy of working at the level of the top flight.”

In your sole season in charge at Dundee United, you finished 4th in the Scottish Premiership, qualified for European football, reached two cup quarter-finals and took points off Celtic and Rangers. I have to ask, therefore, why did you leave the club at the end of that season given the success that you had achieved?

“You are right that we achieved a lot during that season given what we faced as a staff and as a group of players at the club.

“We lost Lawrence Shankland and Kerr Smith for a seven-figure fees, Jeandro Fuchs and Jamie Robson to English football while playing 16 academy players in total over the course of the season.

“Upon reflection of all of that, it makes my decision to leave look peculiar but I knew that it was going to be difficult to replicate that success if I had stayed on with the circumstances at the club with players moving on like they had.

“There were also a number of players coming to the end of their contracts which was another factor that I would have to have dealt with if I had stayed on.

“Furthermore, I had always harboured an ambition to work abroad and there was interest from European clubs that I wanted to explore.

“In the end, I decided to make the move to Budapest Honvéd FC who had a Scottish sporting director and had ambitious plans for the club.

“I knew the move was a risk as the club had changed manager seven times in the last few seasons prior to me going there but I felt that I had to grasp the opportunity particularly given the new sporting structure that the club were putting in place.

“That was not the case as things transpired but not many Scottish coaches go and work abroad and it is an experience that I am glad I have had albeit, I would have liked for it to have been longer.”

You were heavily linked with Croatian club HNK Rijeka while you were at Dundee United. Was that move ever close?

“The move could have been close and I believe there were negotiations between Dundee United and HNK Rijeka.

“However, they wanted to make a quick appointment and negotiations were protracted as Dundee United explored who they would hire as a new manager should I move on.

“In the end, it did not work out but I have no hard feelings over that move because I wanted what was best for Dundee United as well as myself.

“Ultimately, I moved on to Budapest Honvéd FC and Dundee United were able to hire Jack Ross as manager.”

How do you reflect on your experience at Budapest Honvéd FC now with hindsight?

“It was a brilliant experience for me because I feel like I have a greater understanding of the game and that I am a better manager for the experience.

“In the first round of games, we were three points off 5th place which was a good standing given where the club had finished the season prior.

“It would have been easier for me to accept my departure had the club gone on to experience success and head in the right direction but since I have left, the club are now in the bottom half which is not pleasing to see.

“It is disappointing to see that, in all honesty.”

Finally, Thomas, what are your ambitions for the future and where do you see yourself working next? In the UK or abroad?

“I am open to coming back to the U.K. to work or remaining in Europe.

“This is the first time in my career that I have experienced the game from the outside rather than being directly involved within it so it has been a time of learning and reflection for me.

“I have visited numerous football clubs to learn from their approaches and to also understand what I want to do moving forward.

“I am a big advocate of Scottish football and I would be more than open to working within Scottish football again.

“Although, if another opportunity arises in Europe or further afield then I would consider that too.

“I have had a number of experiences in football so far and I look forward to working again soon although I am not desperate to jump at any given opportunity. It has to be the right opportunity.

“Starting a new role in the summer with time to work with players at preseason and build from there would be an ideal opportunity but only time will tell.”