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Jackie and the bean counters

JACKIE McNamara is not the sort of person who would squander his inheritance.

Jackie McNamara looks for players with the same hunger and determination that he had   Photograph: SNS
Jackie McNamara looks for players with the same hunger and determination that he had Photograph: SNS

As a player, he worked hard to polish the talent passed on by his father, and as a manager he is already making sure that Partick Thistle is well provided for when the inevitable happens and a bigger club comes calling.

The 39-year-old is happy where he is and feels there is every chance those ambitions can be satisfied in Maryhill, but his new deal with Thistle guarantees the club a hefty chunk of compensation if he is lured to another job.

Money, however, has never been McNamara's motivation, so he is in the right place just now at frugal Firhill. This is the man who turned down three opportunities to leave Celtic and accepted wages that were lower than many around him in the dressing-room, as Martin O'Neill's side headed towards the Uefa Cup final a decade ago.

Perhaps, those principles were absorbed from his father, Jackie senior, whose entire playing career at Celtic and Hibernian saw him act as a flag-bearer for the Scottish footballers' union, the SPFA. McNamara senior then returned to the union role after being exposed to the harsh realities of the management business when he was sacked in 1998 as assistant manager by the Easter Road club, along with then-boss Jim Duffy.

A quick glance at what happened next illustrates the different world which McNamara – and the rest of the First Division – now inhabits. When Hibernian were relegated, Duffy's successor, Alex McLeish, was given a huge budget to secure an instant return to the Scottish Premier League. In came Franck Sauzee and Russell Latapy, and it paid off as Hibs won the First Division title by 33 points from Falkirk.

There are no handsome salaries now. The average wage at Partick Thistle is £250 a week. Latapy would not have got out of bed for that. McNamara has coaxed thirtysomethings Hugh Murray from St Mirren and Steven Craig from Ross County to augment the squad of young hopefuls who have put Partick Thistle in the promotion race with Morton and Dunfermline Athletic.

When McNamara took over 18 months ago, after Ian McCall's departure, it was for less than his predecessor earned. Partick have now changed that, reflected in the new terms of McNamara's rolling one-year contract. However, there was no team to inherit from McCall. Cutbacks saw to that.

"The average wage is probably half of what Thistle players got a few years ago," McNamara said. "We are a full-time team but we pay part-time [wages]. Players who are part-time can get more than my players. We lost older players last year. That is why the age group is coming down. We have players at 19 or 20, who maybe live with their parents. To survive on the money we give them, is hard.

"Our average is £250-a-week. It is not a lot more than that. Compared to the first-teamers when I began at Dunfermline [who were also in the First Division in the early 1990s] it is not a lot. The cost of living is much higher now. It is difficult for them.

"It is not just our players. It is most of the players in the division. They have to look after themselves and this money is not enough to change their lives. You can get more playing part-time and getting another job. It is whether they see themselves as having the chance of coming here and making it at another level.

"Morton have brought a lot of experienced players. That comes at a cost. I don't know Allan Moore's budget but you are not going to get guys at 35 or 36, with a family, who want to go part-time. They want full-time.

"It is a gamble for everyone in the league, in terms of what you do with your budget. Are you going to budget for winning the league and bring in players to win you the league? We have a structure here and we have kept it over the last two seasons."

With no money, McNamara and his assistant, Simon Donnelly, have had to think outside the box for potential recruits. You might expect two men who won the SPL title at Celtic in 1998 to focus only on impressive playing CVs, but McNamara discovered for himself that teenage setbacks were no barrier to a 20-year playing career which began with Dunfermline and embraced World Cup finals with Scotland and a European final with Celtic.

"I broke my leg at 15," he recalls. "All my pals were getting signed up by Hibs and I was training with Hibs, and a few other teams, but did not get taken on. Dunfermline were the only ones that took a chance on me. I went full-time as a YTS with Jim Leishman and just listened and worked hard. Even at Celtic, I was out of the team with Wim Jansen and Martin O'Neill and you have to try to prove yourself over and over to stay fresh.

"When we took over here, the budget was really nothing to work with. I brought in two kids, one released by St Johnstone, the other was young Aaron Sinclair who we got from Montrose. It was difficult because of the finances, you could not buy somebody with experience. You had to try to bring them on, with coaching.

"The same with our midfielder Stephen O'Donnell. Part-time teams would not touch him. He had been a few places before he came here. I liked the look of him before he got freed by Celtic. We have done a lot of work with him. He's just turned 20 and has a good chance. I keep telling him he's miles ahead of me at that age.

"We did not have a proper youth structure here. We are trying to do it now. We had no money to try to change anything. So we took Steven Lawless, who was freed by Motherwell, along with Ross Forbes, and Sean Welsh from Hibs plus Conrad Balatoni from Hearts.

"They all need to play more to come back up the ladder. They need to have hunger. That is crucial. If they do not have drive or determination, they will not go to the next level. That was one thing I had as a player. I do not think I was blessed with pace or skill, but I listened, worked my backside off and got rewarded."

Ironically, the most gifted of McNamara's colleagues, Henrik Larsson, has found out how quickly reputations can evaporate once the manager's title is added. The Swede may be an icon in his homeland, as well as at Celtic, but he endured criticism from fans of Landskrona for two seasons of mid-table finishes in the Swedish second tier and resigned last month.

"That's because he is not playing any more, that is the problem [with expectation]. I spoke to Henrik just as his season was finishing. He's in Glasgow this weekend for a Celtic dinner and I will see him then, and talk about the stress of management," laughed the Partick manager.

If McNamara can guide Thistle back into the top flight after an eight-year absence, on a "shoestring budget", that would be a modern football miracle. However, he would prefer to see the Clydesdale Bank Premier League expanded to nourish those First Division clubs facing a financial wasteland. McNamara is lukewarm about the SPL's proposal of 12 clubs being invited to join a breakaway elite of two tiers, and would prefer a 16-team top division with promotion-relegation play-offs, of the sort he experienced at Dunfermline in 1995.

"The other clubs in this division are like ourselves, trying to get to the next level, but with just one space it is really difficult," said McNamara. "It has to change. The SPL does not work, although this season has probably been the best SPL that I can remember.

"We need a bigger league, of 16. For me, the 'two 12s' idea is not the best scenario, but I would take it. It is hard for the teams who have come up. The gulf is still too big between them and the rest of the SPL. We also need to bring back play-offs. I was involved in the play-off against Aberdeen when I was with Dunfermline. Both grounds were sell-outs for the two games and it brought excitement."

McNamara, though, has no plans to "sell out" Partick Thistle and abandon Firhill for the first tempting offer. "I have ambitions to do well, just like I did when I first started as a player," he said. "I am learning here and I am not looking anywhere at the moment.

"I keep telling our younger players that there was speculation I was leaving Dunfermline after the play-offs with Aberdeen in 1995. I spent the whole summer wondering where I was going to and the [£600,000] move to Celtic in October came when I was not expecting it. Things happen when you least expect it."

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