By Colin Byiers
When the inevitable day comes when a player has to retire, it’s their next move that can surprise the most. Former Ross County and Inverness Caley striker Andrew Barrowman made the decision to not go down the traditional roles after playing but went instead into the business side of the game and has down very well since.
On the back of Kelty Hearts clinching the League 2 title, NE98 writer Colin Byiers has been chatting with the club’s Sporting Director about the success the club has achieved on and off the park, as well as his playing career, which included a Scottish Cup Final in 2010.
Firstly, Andrew, congratulations on winning League 2. How pleased are you to get it over the line?
Delighted to get it done. I think in recent weeks there had been a nervousness trying to get over the line. Everyone could see how close we were, and you can see a bit of tetchiness in the play, even the fans or us in the committee, everyone just willing us over the line. We can look forward to finishing the season off on a high and look forward to next season, and we go again.
Was there any pressure as most had Kelty down as favourites?
We put pressure on ourselves. We knew we had assembled a semi-decent squad, the core of a decent squad coming up from the Lowland League. Appointing a manager like Kevin (Thomson) puts pressure on you. We thrive on that. The characters we have in the dressing room and coaching staff and beyond that, we are happy with that. We can deal with it. Talk about pressures, the pressures of trying to get out of the Lowland League and all the trails and tribulations that come with that politically is pressure. So to have a first League 2 campaign in the clubs history didn’t really feel like pressure in the grand scheme of things, although there was a pressure to live up to those expectations.
The preparations will have started for next season.
Yes, started probably at the turn of the year. We had two plans, one for if we were League 2 and one for League 1. Everything in football moves so quickly you have to be on the front foot and moving forward. We are nearly there in terms of what we want to achieve this summer.
Let’s talk about your own career then. After leaving Rangers at 16, you moved down to England with Birmingham City. Quite a big move for a young man of 16.
I was playing for Scotland school boys at the time, playing against England, and a Birmingham scout was there, and it quickly moved from there. It was more of a daunting move for my mum and dad to be honest. For me it was a big adventure. I always dreamed of becoming a professional footballer and I was getting a chance to do it. Moving to a different country or city never came into my thoughts.
I had been going to a few clubs in England, training with them, but I got a really nice feeling about Birmingham. They were Championship team at the time, and I had gone to Leeds and Newcastle, clubs that were top end Premiership sides and I felt it would be a step too far if I’m honest. I felt I wouldn’t get anywhere near the first team. At Birmingham I felt it was the right level of club where I could become a better player but also have a chance of getting into the first team.
In my first year that all changed. Steve Bruce came in and we got promoted into the Premier League. The place just went crazy! We got a new training ground over the summer. Players were signing, the cars in the car park got a wee bit better. It didn’t pan out the way I had thought, but it was a great time and a great club. It was great grounding for me but ultimately, I fell short of being good enough at that level, but what I learned has stood me in good stead for the rest of my career to be honest.
I had been at Rangers since I was 8, and back then they didn’t have a training centre. Like most Scottish clubs, it was jump on a minibus and get to a local grass pitch. So, when I get down to Birmingham it’s totally different because they had the facilities, and when you went to play teams like Manchester United, Manchester City or Liverpool, it was phenomenal! There was a big difference in the facilities and even in the Academy structure was different.
You left Birmingham in January 2006 and signed for Walsall.
Paul Merson signed me, and he got sacked a week later. We got beat 5-1 away to Brentford and he go the sack on the bus on the way home! That was my first game. Between then and the end of the season, we had something crazy like 3 managers. There were all sorts going on behind the scenes, and to no one’s surprise we got relegated. Once Paul left, I played bits and pieces under the other managers and never really established myself under any of the managers.
For the first time since I went down to England, I was starting to feel homesick. I still had a year to go in my contract, and I still remember driving back down the road the night before first day of pre-season training and I just decided I didn’t want to go back. A new manager had been appointed, a guy called Richard Money, and I walked into his office first thing in the morning, and I told him I wanted my contract ripped up. He was delighted because having come from Birmingham, I was on good money, so he was happy to get me off the wage bill. That was it, I was back up the road with my life packed into the back of the car.
During your time at Birmingham, you had loan spells with Crewe, Blackpool and Mansfield. How would you sum up your time in England?
The loans I went on in League 1, League 2 and even the Championship, were hard. Most weeks it’s Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday. It’s non-stop. That was a shock to the system. I learned a lot at each club, I don’t think I was any good in any of those loan spells, except maybe the one at Crewe. I was learning things like winning a game of football for a win bonus which was something I had never experienced before.
Kilmarnock was your next move. How did that one come about?
Eric Black, who was the assistant manager at Birmingham, was someone I got on really well with and he had started phoning people trying to help me out. Billy Brown was his contact at Kilmarnock, and I went in and trained with them. Played a couple of pre-season games and they offered me a contract.
I never really felt I go the chance at Kilmarnock. Having signed in pre-season, they already had a settled squad of forwards, so I was never given the opportunities. I went on loan to Queen of the South as part of the Wullie Gibson deal. Kilmarnock were desperate to sign Gibson and myself and Stevie Murray went the other way on loan.
I didn’t want to move to Queen of the South, I didn’t feel it was the right move. They were bottom of the table after 10 games. I didn’t want to go. I told Billy Brown that and 5 minutes later I got a phone call from Jim Jefferies, saying I was going! I didn’t score too many goals there, but I ended up enjoying it. I was playing every week and gaining the experience that set me up for what was to come.
In your first spell at Ross County, was this the first time you felt you had found your place as you would enjoy your best form of your career up until then?
Aye. That was probably the first time I regarded myself as a first team footballer. That summer I hadn’t a lot of options because I hadn’t played that well, probably 4 or 5 teams to be honest. I went up and met George Adams and within 10 minutes I knew it was the right place for me. He actually gave me an ear bashing, in terms of where I should be in my career. He basically gave me a kick up the backside the first time I met him and wasn’t blowing smoke up my backside.
It started off great, I started scoring goals and as a striker, you build confidence from that. I scored 12 goals in the first 10 games. Any young player confidence is a massive thing, especially a striker. There would be games where I might not be playing particularly well but the manager kept me on, and I ended up scoring in the final 20 minutes or so. There were loads of things I enjoyed up there. I had the faith of the manager, the faith of the people who were running the club and in turn I hope I repaid that faith. It was the first time I felt I was part of something in terms of first team level.
Your form attracted the eye of other clubs, and you moved to County’s rivals Inverness Caley. Was that a move you thought extra-long about?
I was in a fortunate position where a few clubs had offered me pre-contracts in January and Inverness was one of them. Craig Brewster was the manager and I signed for Inverness because of Craig Brewster basically. He was always in contact with me after a game. Any game he could he’d be there watching me and after the game sending me a text with some advice. I didn’t know him, but he was a striker similar to myself and I just felt that that was the right place for me to go at the time.
You got off to the perfect start with a goal on your debut at Pittodrie.
We played well in a 2-0 win, and I think the 2-0 flattered them to be honest. We had a good pre-season and the week prior we played a pre-season game against Burnley, and I scored two. Don Cowie played just off me I felt we formed a really good partnership and understanding. All that goes into the first game, and we get a great result and you’re thinking this could be an enjoyable season, but it was only one game.
Things didn’t go well. To be honest, the Inverness fans never really took to me. In the first preseason game against Ross County, I was on the bench first half, and I was warming up and all the fans were booing me. I was only at County for a year, it wasn’t like I had been a County stalwart, they just never took to me. They were on my back constantly and I couldn’t handle it. We were fighting at the bottom of the table and Craig ends up getting the sack in the January and Terry Butcher comes in.
After 18 months at Caley, you move back to Ross County in 2010, and the club have a run to the Scottish Cup final.
Terry Butcher had made it clear he wanted me to leave. They were trying to force me out. They knew I was leaving; I knew I was leaving. I has agreed to go back to Ross County, and it was just about getting a settlement from Inverness as I still had a year and a half left on my contract and it wasn’t until 10:30 on deadline day that an agreement had been reached. Had it not, then the end of that season could have been so different.
We beat Hibs in a replay in the quarterfinals. We played really well at Easter Road but we thought we had lost the chance to beat them. We ended up beating them up in Dingwall and before the game the draw had already been made and we knew we were playing Celtic in the semi-final. The Celtic game at Hampden was the highlight of my career and for us it was a free hit. We had a young team, a team that had something to prove. We went into that game with no one giving us a chance, but we went into that game wanting to have a go and I think the game played like that. We started well, started on the front foot and I think that spooked Celtic. We were getting the better of Celtic. That was a fantastic day and great celebrations after.
Just before the final, our season had just finished and we were meant to be going away to Spain for some warm weather training, but then the ash cloud happened so it got cancelled. Our warm weather training was moved to Dingwall which was slightly different! When you look back on it, yes you are disappointed you didn’t win the game and maybe don’t appreciate what we had achieved, but at the time you are so wrapped up in wanting to win the game and not get beat. It was a great time for the club and will live long in the memory of the fans. There was no one left in Dingwall that day and the support we got from the town was great. 3-0 probably wasn’t a fair reflection on the game but we certainly didn’t deserve to win the game and there’s a hint of disappointment there.
When you look back at your career, aside from the Scottish Cup run with Ross County, do you look back on it with pride?
I’m immensely proud. I like to think I was a good professional and a good teammate. These things are important to me, and I pride myself in doing that throughout my career. I’m happy with what I did, and I can look back with pride on what I achieved.
Prior to your retirement in 2015, you started a business management degree. Was that something you were looking to do before you finished playing?
When I was 28 at Dunfermline during the administration thing, I had been looking to do something because, when you hadn’t been paid in 6 months you quickly realise that it wasn’t going to last forever, so I needed to start planning for the future. I didn’t have any ambitions of staying in football in traditional roles like management or coaching. In my last few years of my career, you are on contracts year to year and there is no real security. I didn’t enjoy that and as you slip down the levels that’s how it goes, there are no 2- or 3-year contracts. I always had ambitions of staying in football but in the business side of things and thankfully I got that opportunity last summer.
Tell us about your role as Sporting Director at Kelty Hearts.
I got to know Dean McKenzie the owner of the club through my previous job at Joma, and we hit it off. We would have meetings were it would be 5 minutes of business and then an hour of speaking about football and ideas on how a football club should be run. A year ago he had asked me to come in and help with the running of the club as he has other businesses and were looking to up the pyramid and needed some help.
At the time they were in the Lowland League and I felt that role wasn’t needed then but said we’d look at in again in the summer after promotion etc. The Monday after they were promoted, I got a phone call saying that Barry Ferguson was leaving as manager and could I help appoint a new manager. That was me, straight in and after about 3 months I said we should have that chat we were supposed to have in the summer.
It’s been great so far. A lot is made about how good the team on the pitch is, but believe me, the team off it is just as good. There is a real strength and everyone is pulling in the same direction. The people behind Kelty Hearts are the real strength and they’ll continue to grow on and off the pitch. It’s been a joy to be apart of. I’m fully a Kelty fan now, I’m all in.
Giving your experiences at Dunfermline during the administration, can you use that in the position you are in now?
Dunfermline is obviously a way of how not to do it! Ever club I was at I was interested in the commercial side of things and take a keen interest in that. The job I do now, I’ve been preparing for that for a long time and long before that I was creating plans on how to do things. Thankfully I’m at a club where I’ve been able to put those plans into place and been able to put my own stamp on things.
There will be comparisons to what Kelty is looking to achieve with what Gretna did. Do you take on board these comparisons and are they fair comparisons?
I wouldn’t say it’s fair, but I do understand why they are saying them. We certainly aren’t paying players what Gretna were paying players back then. The club have had a plan that has had front end investment but come next season in League 1 we will be fully sustainable as a club. What we bring in will pay the bills. Dean is a very clever businessman. He isn’t going to throw stupid money into something where he doesn’t see any long-term future. Our budget last season was the same as this season and I think we’ve got good value on the pitch in terms of what we watch every week.
We missed out on loads of players last summer to clubs in League 1 and 2 because we didn’t want to offer them what they were getting offered elsewhere. People just believe we’ll out pay anyone, but I can name 10 players that we lost out on for more money that we were offering. We’ll put a value on a player and if he doesn’t meet that value then we move on and we look at something else.
How pleased are you with the job Kevin Thomson has done this season?
It’s Kevin’s first job, but we thought he was the right fit for the club in terms of progressive players or progressive managers who see Kelty as a steppingstone. We want that at Kelty in terms of getting value from a player so they can move on. We are under no illusions that nobody dreams of playing for Kelty Hearts but if we can attract these people who can become better players and in turn make Kelty a better team.
I think Kevin comes under that category. Kevin has been on the record that he is ambitious in the game in what he wants to achieve. That’s fine, we are comfortable with that. As long as it’s done with respect to the club then we’ll actively encourage that. There is no doubt there will be a day when Kevin leaves Kelty Hearts, and we know that.
He’s a good manager and we’ve enjoyed a lot of good times this season because of Kevin Thomson. We sit in the stands purring at some of the stuff they’ve been playing this season and a lot of that is down to Kevin. We’ll enjoy him for as long as we have him. We hope to have him a bit longer, but that goes for the players too.
What’s the future ambitions for the club?
Just keep moving forward. People think we’ll move up into League 1 and win it by 16 points. We are realistic. We’ve played League 1 sides in cup competitions and friendlies. We know the level we are getting into, and we know we need to improve to challenge at that top end. We’re going to enjoy it. There are some potentially big ties and some potentially bigger ties if things go a certain way in the Championship. We’ll add to the squad we’ve got.
Most have been signed up for next season, but we’ll add 4 or 5 and give us a go at being competitive. We look at teams like Arbroath who are a great marker for us. They are getting it right on the pitch and off it. 900 season ticket holders. These are the things we are looking to achieve, and I know Arbroath has a bigger population, but we know there are neutrals coming to our games and its how do we get them to become Kelty fans and buy a season ticket at the start of the season. We are very forward thinking and we look to become the best part-time club in the country.