Part-time thinking

Adam Dodd had only been at Somerset Park for a fortnight but he already knew the script: “There is a huge difference between part-time and full-time and we put in a real effort and deserved to get something out of the game, or at least take it to penalties" he told the Herald after United’s semi-final defeat at Hampden. It is a familiar mantra – Ayr boss Brian Reid uses it in almost every interview you hear or read. Whether to take the pressure off his squad and engender an ‘underdog’ spirit as United fight relegation against exclusively full time opposition, or to take pressure of himself as an ambitious manager looking to move upwards in the game, there can be no doubt over the contractual status of Reid’s squad.

Unless you are Kenny Shiels of course. The contrary Kilmarnock manager caused a storm in the run up to the semi-final by claiming on BBC Radio Scotland Ayr United were not part time: “I don’t know where they get this part-time thing from. They are very much a full-time team” the Northern Irishman maintained. To underline his point Sheils made reference to United signing two players from Blackpool (Dodd and Tomsett on loan) and, bizarrely, goalkeeper Cammy Bell fitting a kitchen in his own home.

“We have to make it quite clear that they’re not part-time, they are full-time". 
Kenny Shiels on Ayr United

Brian Reid was affronted and the next day winger Mickey McGowan was on the back page of the red tops in a hard hat. Reid said: “I’m shocked, to tell you the truth. I’m struggling to understand where Kenny is coming from or exactly what it is he is trying to say.

“Is he calling us liars? It certainly looks that way.

“We are part-timers up against a side from the SPL and we are the underdogs. We are not lying about that.”

Michael McGowan: not a full-time footballer
psychology graduate, Shiels - perhaps concerned about meeting the less cerebrally gifted Reid on a dark night - admitted he was playing mind games.  How else could you explain the Ulsterman claiming Kilmarnock (population 45,000) were the underdogs going into the semi-final because Ayr (population 46,000) is a bigger town? He was trying, unconvincingly, to take the pressure off his side.  But, whisper it, I think Sheils was making a good point about Ayr United's part-time status. A point that was seemingling missed by a rattled Reid and lost in the tabloid hubris surrounding the derby.

Sheils, not a stranger to being misunderstood, speaks from experience having managed in Northern Ireland for a number of years. "The boys are more professional now, they will have done their work and I guarantee they will have done as much work as us and they will be well rested" he said. Again after the game: "...do you think those guys are part-time? Modern players, whether they are with Ayr, Montrose or East Fife, they do their preparation because they have so much pride in being a good footballer".

If you give Brian Reid the credit for having the nous, the Kilmarnock manager called it correctly: "I've been in that position and what you do, as a manager, is you bring it up all the time to try to use it to take the pressure off your players.

"I don't blame Brian for doing that, it's a method of trying to take the pressure off his players.

He is working really hard to be the underdog and I can appreciate that."

Realism is important but I don't think some positivity from would go amiss from Brian Reid, for players and fans alike.  By constantly playing the part-time card, Reid may be taking the pressure off his players but is he also giving them an excuse?  Why not build belief in the players - and the fans - that Ayr United can match their opposition? Completely missed in the furore surrounding Sheils' post-match comments was the root of his frustration at Ayr's tactics: “Ayr were good enough to win. They have good players.

"You just have to make them believe that. You have to make them believe they are good.

"Their players' work ethic and endeavour was magnificent but it was a negative approach."

I've discussed the rights and wrong of United's approach in that game, but did the players believe that they could match Killie? More importantly, do they believe they can stay in the First Division?

The presumption is that part-time teams will 'run out of legs', tire in games against full-time outfits.  But Ayr have shown this season that they are a fit side, more than a match even for SPL sides. They took Hearts to extra-time in September. Matched St. Mirren for 90 mins in October, finishing the stronger and scoring a late winner. Both midweek games.  Indeed, as pointed out by Ross Moffat on twitter, no side in the First Division has picked up more points in final 10 minutes of games than the Honest Men, a season changing seven points from defeats turned to draws and draws into victories.  Brian Reid and his staff, and the players, deserve enormous credit for this.

United did come unstuck last Tuesday at Firhill, but the reason for Partick Thistle's second-half was as much to do with circumstances and schedules as it was United being part-time. Six nights previously, United had been chasing shadows for the first half-an-hour versus an exuberant Falkirk side but, with an extraordinary effort came back to finish the game stronger. At the weekend, a long journey to Dingwall and back was interspersed with a battling performance against league leaders Ross County in difficult conditions and on a heavy pitch. Any side, no matter how fit, would have struggled with that going into their third game of the week. Added to that a makeshift defence, weakened further by the loss of John Robertson when the score was still 1-1, and it was simply a bad day (or night) at the office.

Brian Reid hasn't always seen part-time football as such a hindrance. Following his first promotion to the First Division in 2009, he told the Ayrshire Post: “I don’t buy the argument that there’s a huge gap to make up and we certainly won’t be using the part-time excuse.” What changed? Ayr battled for the Second Division title in Season 2009/10 against a Raith Rovers who, like Ayr, hand a mix of part-time and full-time players.  The following season, United battled against relegation against Rovers and part-time Airdrie.  A disastrous run of just one win from their last 10 games saw United finish bottom on the final day of the season, two points behind Airdrie. The Diamonds - with a similarly punishing scheduled and part-time squad - picked up 17 points...

The psyche was probably changed the following season. Livingston romped the Second Division as the only full-time side. United finished 23 points behind Livi, but more interestingly with 15 points less than Season 2008/09.  That season saw some horror results against sides, (annoying football cliché alert) with all due respect, Ayr should have been beating. 4-1 away to Alloa and Forfar. 4-0 at home to East Fife. 3-1 at home to Stenhousemuir. Shocking results that had nothing to do with Ayr United being part-time and everything to do with Brian Reid's shortcomings as a tactician and man manager. Livingston's full-time status was a convenient excuse. Play-off success was the get out of jail card for the manager.

This season, unlike Season 2010/11, Ayr are the only part-time in the First Division but so far are holding their own, very much in a three-way relegation battle involving Raith Rovers and Queen of the South. Yes, full-time teams have more time to work on shape and tactics. More time to recover. But if Brian Reid can install the belief his players that they are match for any side in this division, regardless of whether they deliver pigs trotters, work on building sites or train full-time, hopefully the conclusion to the season can be positive.

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