Danny Lennon On Leading St Mirren To League Cup Success And His Burning Love For The Game

Danny Lennon On Leading St Mirren To League Cup Success And His Burning Love For The Game

An interview with Danny Lennon by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You started your managerial career at Cowdenbeath and led the club to back-to-back promotions from Scottish League Two to the Scottish Championship. How do you reflect on that success now?

“I am incredibly proud of what was achieved at Cowdenbeath because winning promotions is not an easy thing to do at any level.

“Added to that, it was my first job in management having been assistant manager at the club before I took over.

“My main motivation for taking the job was down to my previous experiences as assistant manager at Cowdenbeath and Head of Youth Development at Gretna. I thoroughly enjoyed each of those experiences and I believed that I was fully ready for the next step in my journey which was to become a manager. Whenever you are given an opportunity in management, you must grasp it and that is what I did.

“I believed that I could offer something different to the job as a manager because I wanted to make the players better individually and collectively as players and as people.

“While I was in charge of the first team squad, we did not have a big budget, so I was also in charge of recruitment and many other things at the club down to things like helping out with groundsman duties.

“It was a phenomenal learning curve that served me well when I stepped up to become the manager of St Mirren in the Scottish Premiership.”

You became St Mirren manager in June 2010 having managed one season in Scottish League One and one season in Scottish League Two. How did you adapt to moving up two divisions to manage in the top flight of Scottish football?

“My appointment raised a few eyebrows given where I had come from, but I believe that my track record spoke for itself and, as such, I had more than earned the right to manage at that level, which is where I aspired to be as a manager because you always want to test yourself at the highest level possible.

“I will always be grateful to St Mirren for giving me the opportunity to prove myself in the highest league in Scotland.

“Overall, I had four wonderful years at the club which I thoroughly enjoyed.

“I began to understand very quickly what St Mirren was all about as a football club because it is a real community club.

“My remit when I arrived in Paisley was to keep the club in the top flight of Scottish football – which I was able to deliver in all of my years in charge – while also bridging the gap between the academy and the first team.

“During my time in charge of St Mirren, I was able to bring the likes of Kenny McLean and John McGinn into the first team and give them a platform to play week in, week out and grow in confidence as footballers. I still follow their careers closely to this day and wish them every success because it is nice to have a little helping hand in someone’s career.

“My first year in particular was a challenge because I inherited players who were already under contract and who would be difficult to move on. Therefore, I had to adapt to the players that I had at my disposal before gradually putting more of my imprint on the team as my tenure went on.”

You won the Scottish League Cup with St Mirren against Heart of Midlothian in 2013. It was St Mirren’s first piece of major silverware in 26 years. Before we talk about the final itself, can you sum up the run that you went on to reach the final?

“The key to that success was the blend of players that we had at the club. We had the likes of John McGinn and Kenny McLean who were up-and-coming talents while also having senior players who had played international football such as Stephen Thompson and Gary Teale in amongst them as well as other experienced players such as Jim Goodwin and David Van Zanten.

“We also utilised the loan market well by forging a relationship with Newcastle United which saw us take Paul Dummett and Conor Newton on loan. Both of those players were great for us and were a part of that success.

“Our run to the final was incredibly tough with a quarter-final against Aberdeen away at Pittodrie before we went on to face Celtic in the semi-final at Hampden.

“The game up at Pittodrie was a tightly contested affair, which we drew 1-1 before going on to win the game on penalties.

“That win was massive for the confidence of the group and thankfully, we were able to take that into the semi-final against a strong Celtic team that Neil Lennon had put together.

“Celtic had beaten Barcelona in the Champions League with Messi and co in the team earlier in the season, so it was not a poor team that we faced. That made our victory even more remarkable because no one gave us a chance heading into that game.

“The game itself was dramatic with us going 1-0 in front thanks to a goal from Esmael Goncalves inside the opening ten minutes. Celtic then equalised on the stroke of halftime thanks to a goal from Gary Hooper before they had the chance to take the lead when they were awarded a penalty early in the second half.

“Thankfully, our goalkeeper Craig Samson made a vital penalty save to keep us at 1-1. That turned out to be a massive turning point in the game as we went 2-1 up thanks to a penalty of our own which Paul McGowan converted before adding a third to go 3-1 up when Stephen Thompson scored a fantastic volley.

“From there, we had 20 minutes to go until full time and we held out well until Charlie Mulgrew scored an injury-time goal to make the score 3-2.

“Thankfully, that late goal was too little, too late for Celtic on the day and we won the game 3-2 to send us into the final. That day was a wonderful moment at Hampden for everyone associated with the football club but thankfully, we were able to go one better in the final and create an even greater memory.”

In the final against Hearts, you were on the winning side of another dramatic 3-2 game. Can you talk me through that momentous day from your perspective?

“Going into the final, we were the underdogs, and we fuelled the players with clips of old St Mirren matches when players, playing in the same back and white strip that they would, believed in themselves and went on to achieve results that no one would have backed them to do.

“The atmosphere at the final itself was fantastic and the game itself was just as dramatic as the semi-final.

“We went 1-0 down inside ten minutes and, in all honesty, we could have been a couple of goals down in that first half because we played the occasion rather than the game at times.

“However, I made a tactical change by moving the position of Paul McGowan further back and from there, we remained resolute and scored either side of halftime thanks to goals from Esmael Goncalves and Stephen Thompson.

“Those goals really settled us down and we were flying in the second half which led to us going 3-1 up with a goal from Conor Newton.

“Hearts threw everything at us, and they pulled a goal back to make it 3-2, but that did not deter us and come full time, it was our cup, and the celebrations were nothing short of phenomenal.

“I always remember celebrating one of the goals that day by just turning around in the technical area and looking back at the thousands of St Mirren fans celebrating. I do not know what made me do it but I soaked it all up and I remember that moment like it was yesterday.

“Winning a major honour with St Mirren is something that will stay with me and with the club forever.

I am proud of all of the players and staff that I worked with during that period because they were a credit to themselves, and we created something truly special that will forever be in the history books.”

As well as the League Cup success, you also led the club to some of their highest league finishes in decades – at that time – and you are a member of the club’s Hall of Fame. How do you reflect on your time at the club as a whole and your departure given all that you achieved in Paisley?

“I am immensely proud of the job that I did at St Mirren because I achieved what was expected of me in the league and won a major trophy while bringing through young players into the team.

“Some of those young players were sold on for tidy profits that made the club substantial amounts of money with fees and sell on clauses in the years after I had left the club.

“I am especially proud when I look back on it now because my budget was gradually reducing year upon year during my tenure.

“Overall, I will always be thankful to the board of directors at St Mirren for giving me the opportunity to manage the club but, in all honesty, I was disappointed by the manner of my departure with my contract not being renewed after four seasons.

“It hurt me given the fact that I was achieving the aims expected of me with a smaller budget than I had started with when I was appointed.

“Added to that, I believe that I was a better manager after four years in charge than I was at the start of my time in charge, so I felt that I had earned the right to more time in the job.

“I gave my all for St Mirren Football Club and prioritised the club over my family and my kids for much of my tenure and I am not ashamed to admit that because that is how much the job meant to me.

“It also stung deep that I was not given the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to the St Mirren fans as I did not know that I would be leaving the club prior to the last home game of my last season in charge.

“That made it feel to me that my time at the club had fizzled out rather than having the goodbye that I would have appreciated. It made me reluctant to go back for a couple of years but thankfully that has passed now, and I love going back to the club as an ambassador under the new ownership group.

“I love being around the fans and sharing my memories with them on match days and I hope that the club can go from strength to strength in the years ahead.”

Finally, Danny, post St Mirren, you took charge of the Scotland Under 21 side on a caretaker basis and managed Clyde for five years. With your experience within the game, are you hoping to return to management again soon?

“It was an honour to work with the Scotland Under 21 national team for a short period of time because I love working with young players and helping them to fulfil their potential.

“I would love to have stayed in that job longer, but I was only interim manager while an SFA restructuring was ongoing before moving on to return to club management.

“I enjoyed working at Clyde for the five years that I was at the club even though, the last 18 months were difficult due to a number of board changes with chairmen coming and going during that latter part of my time there.

“I am sad to see where the club is now because I believe that with the correct infrastructure at the club, that I could have taken the club to a new level, but it was not to be as I would have liked in the end.

“I want to return to management again soon because I believe that with my track record in the game, that I have a lot to offer a club.

“I was offered a managerial job overseas recently, but I want to be at home at this moment in time to support my family as my eldest son has just left school and started an apprenticeship, so I want to be around to support him in his next step in life.

“I love football, I am as enthusiastic as ever about the game and coaching on the grass and I hope to be able to put my experience within the game to good use in the coming months and years ahead.”