AFTER the best part of 40 years at the sharp end of the sport, it doesn’t quite seem right that George Graham is bowing out in these circumstances – but the 54-year-old, who played 25 times for Scotland between 1997 and 2002, is a man who knows his mind and insists that he won’t be back.
When news broke on Thursday evening that Graham is stepping down as head coach of Hawick with immediate effect, it was not a huge surprise – but the fact that the coronavirus had deprived his team of a tilt at glory in the end of season play-offs raised hopes that he might be persuaded to stay on for one more year to finish what he had started. That proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking, with the die having already been cast in his own mind some months earlier.
“It is not the way I wanted this to happen,” he says. “I had spoken to the club to give them plenty of time to replace me, and I spoke to a few people that I trust, but you know what it’s like in the Borders, nobody keeps anything to themselves.
“The fact that we were playing really well – probably the form team in the league – is really frustrating. It would have been nice to see how we would have fared up at Malleny against Currie Chieftains [in the play-off semi-final] with a fully fit team, but I’m sure loads of clubs are wondering what might have been, so we just have to take it on the chin.
“It is what it is, and I think, on reflection, that Marr deserve to get the league if they do decide to give it to anybody. The table shows that they were the best side over the course of the whole campaign and, to me, it is only fair that they receive the plaudits that they should get.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m done with rugby now,” he continues. “I’ve been actively involved for 40 years – I had 23 seasons as a player and 17 seasons as a coach – and I think I’ve put as much back into the game as I’ve taken out of it, so I feel I’ve paid my dues and I want to watch my laddies play whenever this carry-on gets cleared up and people are safe to go back to their normal lives.
“I want to spend a bit of time doing that, taking my granddaughter with me to go and see her dad play. So, that’s what is behind it. It is nothing to do with Hawick or anything else, it was just that the time was right to step out.”
Graham has four sons. Eldest George [junior] plays amateur rugby for Penrith in Cumbria, Gary has been capped by Scotland and has recently signed a two-year contract extension with Newcastle Falcons, Guy is hopeful of extending his contract at Newcastle Falcons beyond the summer despite some fairly brutal cost-cutting measures occurring in the English club game at the moment, and Greg doesn’t play at all.
“He’s got an affliction called laziness!” quips dad. “He was actually a really good player but didn’t want it.”
Keeping it simple
Graham almost fell into the Hawick role two and a half seasons ago when he stepped in to help re-energise the club after they had lost their first seven games of the 2017-18 Premiership season and were already in danger of becoming detached at the foot of the table.
Guy was playing for Hawick at the time and George had been a frustrated spectator who had sympathy for incumbent head coach Darren Cunningham but agreed with the committee that a shake-up was required to get the famous ‘Green Machine’ back on track.
“I’ve never professed to be the most innovative or sophisticated coach in the world,” he says. “For me, less is more, especially at amateur level, and I’ve spoken to Darren many times about this. The mistake he made was that he gave them reams and reams of moves, which we were seeing very little of during the games. So, when I took over, my first priority was to simplify everything.
“We had three strike moves and in the first session I took we did nothing but those strike moves for an hour and a half, and it wasn’t long before we saw them being executed accurately in games. It was just about building that familiarity, so that you become accustomed to doing it under pressure.
“The next thing was to address the team’s confidence because that had taken a beating after some tough losses. I wanted them to feed off my belief in them, and they did, and we started to turn a few games around. It just took off from there. I’d like to think that I left them in a better situation than what I took over from.”
Hawick ended up clear of relegation in seventh place of ten teams in the Premiership at the end of that 2017-18 campaign. They dotted around the bottom half of the table again the following season, before really coming of age as a side during the second half of the campaign just finished – although Graham admits that it has not been all plain sailing.
“I was incredibly pissed off and offered my resignation after that third game because the players were just not reacting to anything I was asking them to do,” he reveals. “But then we had a meeting and an honesty session, and they turned it around.
“That’s what I love about the boys at Hawick: they are capable of beating anybody on their day. They just needed that confidence and a bit of direction. There are some really good players and they just need to build on that.”
Continuity is key
He will be a tough act to follow but Graham believes that Hawick do not need to cast their net too wide to find the ideal replacements.
“I think they’ve got two fantastic young coaches already there who will be ideal to take the reins,” he says. “Dean McCracken would be my next head coach, he’s still got a wee bit more experience to gain but that’s easily fixed, and Matty Douglas is a very exciting prospect who has done a lot of work on our defence which has been absolutely fantastic recently, so all they really need to do is find a forwards coach.”
He’s as tough as old boots but you don’t have the success Graham has achieved as a coach over a sustained period of time – with Hawick, Gala twice, Petrarca Padova in Italy and the Scotland national team as an assistant to Frank Hadden between 2005 and 2008 – without having the human touch.
There is nostalgia, and perhaps a bit of sadness, that his days at rugby’s pit-face have come to an end – but no regrets.
“When I look back and see where I started from in the Raploch in Stirling, joining Stirling County when I was 15, then joining the army, and all the stuff that followed on from that, it has been some old journey,” he says.
“I’ve been very fortunate, but there is no doubt that I have worked incredibly hard and sacrificed a lot to get to where I wanted to be. I still believe to this day that everything is achievable through sacrifice – dedication – and if you put your goals to the forefront then I think they will always be achievable.”