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Graeme Mathie on Ayr vision and other opportunities since leaving Hibs

IT’s been a hectic week for Graeme Mathie but that’s just how the new Ayr United managing director likes it.

After almost three months out of the game following his departure from Hibernian at the end of September, the phone has started ringing again, there are people to meet and a vision for the club to be relayed. Most importantly, though, there are matches to be played and Mathie admits he is particularly looking forward to that flush of anxiety that comes from watching a tight match.

“One thing I kept saying to people was that I missed the madness,” says Mathie. “I missed that time when there is 10 minutes to go and you need to get a result to enjoy your Saturday night, it will be good to get that feeling again.”

There have been plenty of eyebrows raised in Scottish football recently as clubs have pulled off a number of coups by unveiling impressive personnel charged with overseeing their respective new employer’s future fortunes. Queen’s Park brought in Marijn Beuker, formerly of AZ Alkmaar as their director of football operations, while Falkirk unveiled Martin Rennie, a Scottish manager who has served most of his time in the United States, as head coach earlier this week. The imminent arrival of Shaun Maloney as Hibernian manager after tomorrow’s Premier Sports Cup final only adds to a sense that there is a new-found creativity among owners when it comes to appointing staff.

Then, there is Mathie, the former sporting director at the Easter Road club. He was a key figure in a seven-year spell as head of player recruitment and latterly sporting director as Hibs lifted the Scottish Cup in 2016 and won promotion to the Premiership a year later. Tongues wagged when he was spotted at Parkhead in October taking in Celtic’s win over St Johnstone with the club still searching for a director of football but the 39-year-old dismisses those links – although he does confirm there was interest from elsewhere.

“Somebody texted me and said there was an opportunity to go to the game [at Celtic Park] but there was nothing formal on that day. It was just nice to go and enjoy a game. But I spoke to six or seven other people about opportunities elsewhere: one in England and one abroad. I was also speaking to different people in other sports.”

All of which suggests Ayr have pulled off a bit of a coup. It also raises an obvious question: Why Ayr? Mathie lives in the town but he says the appeal was greater than just quicker car journeys home.

HeraldScotland:

“I spent a bit of time when I left Hibs speaking to a number of different people in different areas of football. It was actually really helpful for me to get a view from people that I could be working with at whatever point in the future. So I reached out to David Smith, I live locally, I’d heard a lot of good things about the work that he had done at the club. The first time we met we sat for two hours and, without going into the detail of that conversation, there was a lot of openness and honesty about where some of the gaps might be at the club.”

Mathie says he was particularly impressed by the work Smith has done in the past year in restructuring the club’s finances and his commitment to off-field projects such as the construction of a supporters hub and new office space at Somerset Park. Above all, he was struck by Smith’s energy.

“We had another four or five conversations and it became clearer that it just felt like a really good fit. When you look at clubs of a similar size to Ayr, I suggested that they have probably done one of three things: they’ve probably played in the Premiership for a period of time; secondly they have reached the latter stages of a national cup competition – either in finals or actually winning trophies – and the third thing is they have an ability to develop and sell players. I said ‘why should that not be a blueprint for the future of Ayr United?’”

His point about player development feels particularly pertinent. Ayr has not exactly been a hotbed for young talent and that is something Mathie, who presided over a prolific academy system that produced Hibs first teamers such as Ryan Porteous and Josh Doig, wants to change.

“[Former Ayr youth players] Luke McCowan, Alan Forrest and Robbie Crawford, are all playing in the Scottish Premiership regularly. That aspect of actually being able to transition players from the academy into the first team is key. Part of the role will be to ask questions about what we can do to get them a game. I don’t think it’s ever for a sporting director, managing director or chief scout to be saying to a manager you must play this young player because the thing that’s never lost on me is that it’s always a head coach or manager that stands on the side of the pitch, with a full stadium of people judging his abilities to do his job. There hasn’t been a player sale for a long time [but] that is about being brave, I guess, giving slightly longer-term contracts. I would love to get to the point where we can tie people down and create a bit of value that way.”

And what does Mathie think the Ayr United of the future will look like off the pitch.

“I want us to be a community club. I know that is a term that is used really widely across Scottish football – but what does it mean and what does it look like? I sat with Shaun Ferrie [football development officer] and Davie White [head of academy] and they told me about something which probably hasn’t been spoken about enough – the recognition the club got from UEFA for the amount of work it has done in the community. That’s really important and we really need to make sure that everyone involved with the club understands what a huge role it plays in the community.”

He cites Raith Rovers and Motherwell as examples of how he would like the club to run.

“Kirkcaldy is not unlike Ayr in terms of its population. I don’t think for one second that Raith spend more money on players but they are up there at the top end of the league.

“Another team I look at is Motherwell. The way they articulate what they are and where they want to be is fantastic. All the time and effort they put into mental health and suicide awareness is absolutely because that is something they understand is a major issue in their area. That gives people something to buy into. They have almost set a narrative for an entire season. Having that consistency about what you are saying about yourself is really important and that is a big part of their plan. And I think why can’t Ayr United have a similar mindset to that? United together behind a common cause.”

Despite bringing through players such as Porteous and Doig and signing Kevin Nisbet and Martin Boyle, Mathie endured criticism for Hibs’ summer recruitment and left in September as owner Ron Gordon embarked on an overhaul of club structures. You sense he would not be as hasty in similar circumstances and points to events at Aberdeen – who stood by manager Stephen Glass – and his old club – who sacked Jack Ross – as evidence of why he believes the patient approach is best practice.

“Hibs went through a sticky spell and now they are two points off the top four,” he says. “I’m not going to judge other people’s decisions because I wasn’t there at the time. I do think when you talk about trying to build something you do need stability and what I want to try to build at Ayr is a situation where we can actually show some resilience, even if results don’t go well for three or four games.

“Dave Cormack [Aberdeen owner] spoke on the radio going back a couple of months ago. He made good points, the biggest, the most salient one for me, was when he said ‘we’ve devised a plan, we can’t turn around after six or seven weeks and say let’s throw that plan in the bin’.”

Speak to fans of the Somerset Park club and they say that the spark missing since the days of the club’s promotion from League 1 in 2017 has reignited following news of Mathie’s appointment. But while he says he is flattered by their support, ultimately, he understands his success or otherwise will be measured simply.

“It’s nice to hear there is positivity about the appointment among the fans but I know all too well how that can change come five o’clock on Saturday. What I would say to the Ayr fans, though, is let’s just enjoy the ride together, let’s enjoy the journey. I want a buy-in from the fans. I want them to be proud to be Ayr United supporters.”

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