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'I wish them all the best. I'll always be a Hearts fan'

AT the conclusion of yet another tumultuous season in Scottish football perhaps it should not have been all that surprising that there was still room for one more twist.

Gary Locke won three and drew one match in April to win the manager of the month award. Picture: SNS
Gary Locke won three and drew one match in April to win the manager of the month award. Picture: SNS

"I don't think there's been a scenario before where someone's won manager of the month and not had a job," mused Gary Locke, the recipient of said award. "It does feel a bit odd."

That was certainly one way of looking at it. There are not many managers who chalk up a record in April of three wins and a draw and end up unemployed a few weeks later but that this is the fate that has befallen Locke. When Ann Budge and Craig Levein showed up at Tynecastle, they said there was no place for Locke, his assistant Billy Brown or the goalkeeping coach Alan Combe despite the trio taking the team to within 12 points of second-bottom Hibernian.

If they had not been hindered with a 15-point handicap as a result of the former owners plunging the club into administration, Hearts would have come within a goal of avoiding even the play-off place. Contractual obligations meant Locke was not allowed to talk about the recent regime change at Tynecastle - more's the pity - but, with his award sitting next to him on the table, he felt vindicated when he said that he could move on with his head held high.

After everything he has been through - from the registration embargo and the points penalty, to working with an inexperienced squad amid lingering uncertainty over the club's future as a going concern - it is not a surprise he will head shortly for a holiday to recharge the batteries.

"Hopefully, I'll get rid of a few wrinkles," he smiled. "Given everything we've been through this season I think I've probably faced things that most experienced managers only face in their whole careers.

"Hopefully I won't be called a rookie anymore. It was important that I learned and I think I have done that. I think it's made me a stronger person and a better manager."

Locke may be prohibited from talking about present-day events at Hearts but there were no such restrictions with regards to analysing his past or discussing his future. Unsurprisingly he looks back on his 15 months in charge with immense pride and satisfaction, watching on as a number of youth-team players grew into established first-teamers.

"Their performances in the last two months of the season have been fantastic," he added. "It shows the mark of the players who were there that they were desperate to do well. We had a fantastic squad there, and the team spirit was great. They were all a pleasure to work with.

"The season was tough but we did a lot of good work on the training pitch and we've left players there who are far better than they were at the start of the season. We said to them that if they could finish within 15 points of someone above us that would be a fantastic achievement, considering the average age. The team improved, there's no doubt about that. It's disappointing to leave but we can leave with our heads held high."

Winning the manager of the month award will no doubt feature fairly prominently when the time comes for Locke to knock together a cv for only the second time in his life. Aside from a six-month spell after he hung up his boots, the 38 year-old has been in continuous employment since leaving school. Despite everything he has been through at Hearts, he is eager to get back into football as quickly as possible. Another managerial appointment would be ideal, but he knows he might not be in a position to be choosy.

"Yeah, I'd love to [get another job right away]," he added. "But I'm well aware that it's not easy. You see a lot of people who you've worked with in the game who have struggled to get back in. I just hope I've done enough at Hearts for people out there to think, 'he did a good job'.

"I've worked my time in management and I'm grateful to Hearts for giving me that opportunity. But I'm not stupid either. I know there aren't a lot of jobs out there, in Scotland or in England. I want to get back as quickly as possible as football's all I've ever known and done.

"Hopefully, I get an opportunity somewhere else. If it's as a manager, then great. If it's a different role then that's something I would consider."

For now, the lifelong relationship between Locke and Hearts is going through a bit of a sticky spell. He was not sure if he would return to watch the team in August if he did not have a new job lined up, but admitted he would never stop supporting the club.

"I'll always be a Hearts fan. You can't pick and choose what team you support. That was the team I supported when I was born. My whole family supported them. I wish them all the best."

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