AS the inhabitants of the west of Scotland have worked themselves into a right old lather about a certain game in Govan in recent days, a former Celtic captain and one-time Rangers defender have had their minds elsewhere.

Scott Brown and Steven Whittaker are gnarled veterans of numerous Old Firm encounters and will doubtless be hoping their old clubs emerge victorious from the match at Ibrox tomorrow and increase their chances of lifting the Scottish title come May.

These days, though, their only concern is seeing Ayr United, where they are manager and assistant manager respectively, prosper.

Their focus this week has, despite the potentially seismic ramifications of the encounter between the first and second placed sides in the cinch Premiership, been firmly been on their Championship fixture against Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park this afternoon.

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“The players had Easter Monday off,” said Whittaker yesterday during a brief break from preparations for the trip to Kirkcaldy. “But Scott and I went through and did a bit of planning for Raith. We watched a bit of their game against Dundee United on Saturday. So some people had a day off, but not us.”

They were wise to work the public holiday. A meeting with their big-spending, high-flying, promotion-chasing opponents has not been easy at any stage this term. However, Ayr have the misfortune to be first up after their rivals’ loss to the second tier leaders. They can, then, expect to be on the receiving end of a backlash to that result. They will need to be at their very best to avoid a mauling.

The Herald: Whittaker is looking forward to every minute of it. Having spent the past 24 years as a player at Hibernian, Rangers and Norwich City and a coach at Dunfermline and Fleetwood Town, a Saturday without a game, even such a difficult one, during the football season would feel empty.

It was perhaps inevitable that the former Scotland internationalist would don a tracksuit and move into the dugout when he hung up his boots.    

“To be honest, it was all I knew,” he said. “I had been involved in football for such a long time as a player. I thought it was the next best thing to playing, still being in amongst it on the pitch with the players. It was something I was keen to hold onto.

“As I got to the later stages of my career back at Hibs, I really enjoyed the role of a senior player and trying to help the younger lads who were coming through, giving them a bit of guidance on the pitch. I think my managers, Paul Heckingbottom and then Jack Ross, leaned on me a bit too.

“Because of the career I had had, the young boys were willing to listen. I would like to think I have got no ego. I tried to help everyone and anyone. The kids were open to anyone who wanted to help them. I had certainly been helped by experienced pros when I was starting out and was happy to do the same.

“Gary Smith was someone who was a big help to me when I was transitioning from a midfielder into a full-back. Stephen Glass too. He had really good experience of the game, including down south. When he spoke you listened. They were a good example of how to be for me.”

Whittaker was a member of an exceptional crop of youngsters, of whom his old mucker Brown was very much one, to emerge at Easter Road in the early 2000s. Steven, how come you were all so good? He knows they were fortunate to come under the wing of an outstanding youth coach when he was starting out too.

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“Donald Park had a massive part of play in that,” he said. “Everyone who came through at Hibs at that time will tell you he had a huge influence on how they approached their football. He was so enthusiastic.

“It was a joy to go in and train under him. Don’t get me wrong, he kept us on our toes and made sure we did our jobs right. If we didn’t he would make sure we knew. There was no cutting corners with him. But if you worked hard you got your rewards. He did everything in good humour too, in a positive environment which he created.

“I suppose Hibs had to rely on their youngsters too because of where they were as a club at that time financially. We were maybe lucky we got the chance. It was a case of sink or swim. But we were working hard as well. The experience of playing a lot of first team games at an early age helped us to go on and enjoy the careers we had.”

The bonds formed during their formative years have endured to this day. “We have all kept in touch,” he said. “You might not hear from someone for a while and then you get a text or a call and it’s like you have just spent the last few days with them.

“There is no awkwardness at all, it is just your old mate who you grew up with. I suppose it says a lot about the good times we had together. We are still a tight-knit group.  Scott and I have always been close. Our families are close now and we socialise together away from football.”

The Herald: Still, teaming up with Brown once again and becoming the ex-midfielder’s assistant when he took over at English League One club Fleetwood in 2022 came about completely by chance.

“I don’t think either of us thought the management thing would happen for Scott as quickly as it did,” he said. “When the opportunity at Fleetwood arose we both thought it was right at the time. But there was no plan or discussion, it was just what happened.

“But we had spent hours together talking about football whenever we met up. So we knew what type of football we liked, what standards we expected on a daily basis. When it came to working together it was probably just a case of putting what we had discussed into practice. We have similar ideas and are both open to coming up with the right answer.

“Fleetwood was a chance we couldn’t turn down. It was an opportunity we were excited about. We made a big difference when we went in, dragged up the standards and achieved a mid-table position. The platform we had was brilliant, the staff, the facilities, the whole environment. It was really enjoyable. We learned a lot.”

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That would appear to be the case. Ayr have beaten Queen’s Park, Partick Thistle, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Airdrie twice since Brown was appointed back in January and have, while still being a little too close to the relegation zone for comfort, an outside chance of making it into the play-offs. Could they deal Raith’s title aspirations a further blow this afternoon? Do not bet against it.

Whittaker knows his colleague is every bit as ambitious as a manager as he was as a player. “Scott was a leader and a winner on the pitch and that is the same now he is a manager,” he said. “He still has that drive about him.

“But he is a people person as well. He is very good with the players. He can get the best out of them. He knows what he can expect from each man in each position. If anyone falls short of that it is our job to let them know.”

The 31-times capped 39-year-old certainly knows a good manager when he sees ones. He has worked with a few since moving from Hutchison Vale Boys Club to Hibs as a gangly teenager back in 2000. He has picked things up from all of them.

“At Hibs, Tony Mowbray was excellent and helped the young boys flourish,” he said. “I then went to Rangers and worked under Walter Smith who had a winning mentality and was very demanding. But he had great man management skills and knew how to get the best out of his group of players as well.

“I worked down south at Norwich under Chris Hughton and Alex Neil and they were both successful in their own way. Then I came back up and worked under Neil Lennon and Paul Heckingbottom at Hibs and they were great managers as well.

“Who was the biggest influence? I couldn’t single anyone out in particular. At each stage, they helped me become a better player. But, to be honest, I just enjoyed playing.”

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Promotion to the Premiership may well elude Ayr this season. Just staying in the Championship may prove to be an achievement of sorts. But Whittaker can sense that better times lie ahead for the Somerset Park outfit beyond the 2023/24 campaign. 

The Herald: “They are trying to do things right, trying to build an infrastructure, trying to be successful without overspending,” he said. “They are trying to improve the whole football club, not just the team on the pitch. There are still challenges, but there is definitely a plan there and something to build towards. The journey the club is on is what drew Scott and I here.

“My first two seasons as a coach were in the Championship with Dunfermline. I am fully aware of what it throws up. The games are really tough whether you are at the top or the bottom. Teams are fighting for every point. But that is what makes it exciting.

“The middle of the league can be quite deceiving. If you lose a game you think, ‘Oh no, we’re near the bottom!’ If you win a game you think, ‘We’ve got a chance of getting into the play-offs!’ The final spot is achievable for three, four, five teams. But we are trying not to get too high or too low.

“Raith are still pushing United. They are four points behind with a game in hand and have plenty to play for. They will want to win again and keep the pressure up. People won’t expect us to get anything. But anyone can beat anyone in this league.”

Whittaker, who is currently doing his UEFA Pro-Licence, was invited to join the Scotland Under-21 coaching staff ahead of their European Championship qualifier against Kazakhstan last month and he relished working with the cream of the country’s young talent and being involved in the 4-1 win.

“I took things on board which will help me with my coaching career,” he said. “It was an increase in talent. You can see the level these guys are playing at.  

“But do you know what I was most impressed with? It was their attitude. I was only there from Sunday to Thursday so it was a short camp. But they were very easy to coach and give advice to, even in that space of time.

“They were all open and keen to play the way Scot (manager Gemmill) and his staff wanted them to in that specific game. They did a really good job against a team which has been really stuffy and hard to break down. Their talent shone through on the night. We could have scored more to be honest. But it was a game as a staff we were really happy with.”

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Whittaker enjoyed meeting up with Sassuolo left back Josh Doig, who he first encountered in his second spell at Hibs, again and confessed he would not be surprised if the defender, and a few of his contemporaries, ascend to the senior Scotland set-up in the not-too-distant future.  

“I spent a little bit of time with Josh when I was at Hibs,” he said. “He has got a great attitude, really wants to impact the game going forward. That is obvious from the goals he has scored and the chances he has created for the team. He is up and down that line from kick-off to the final whistle.

“He was top of the high-speed running stats over the course of the 90 minutes against Kazakhstan. His endeavour to get forward and back was impressive. He has got the quality to match it. That is the reason he has made the moves he has made. He will keep progressing, there is definitely talent there.”

Whittaker added: “It is good to see him playing in Italy. It is happening more often, more young Scottish players are making the move abroad so they can learn from a different league and culture. The different experiences they have make them a better player. It is a good one for him.

“They have to keep practising and learning, but the main thing is they are playing. They are getting minutes at a good level. The more they do that the more experience they will gain and the more they will improve. When Steve (Scotland manager Clarke) wants to get them involved, and a few have been mentioned, they will be ready for it.”

Steven Whittaker is ready for Ayr’s game against Raith this afternoon and whatever his coaching career throws at him thereafter.

The Herald: