It’s very rare in Scottish Football that a managerial appointment is met with near enough complete positivity. The cries for someone else, criticisms of the board, mocking from other fans – it isn’t there. If there is such a thing as someone being a perfect fit for a football club, David Hopkin at Morton is about as close as you’ll get.
It speaks volumes that the only manager to leave Cappielow in the last two decades that could even be considered as moving onto better things is Ian McCall. Morton’s record of picking managers, and not getting rid of underperforming ones, has been truly abysmal, and the main reason for the club failing to achieve anything of note for well over 20 years. Thankfully for supporters, that appears to finally be changing.
It took less than two weeks for Hopkin to be officially confirmed after Jonatan Johansson was (rightly) given his jotters. Applications were supposedly analysed, and interviews conducted, but the validity of that is somewhat in question. This has been a change which has been in the pipeline for a while now, and with good reason, it is one that makes perfect sense for both manager and club.
Taking a squad of players assembled in League 1 all the way to the Premiership, in just two seasons, will go down as one of the most impressive managerial triumphs in Scottish Football’s modern era. There won’t be a season in the third-tier to help mould his Morton side (I hope so anyway) but there are likely to be lots of similarities to the Livingston team he put together.
Fitness is going to be key, and the appointment of Anton McElhone as Hopkin’s assistant looks like it could back that up. McElhone has excellent pedigree. He’s a sports scientist specialising in fitness and conditioning, with experience at Hibs, New England Revolution and over 10 years of service at Tottenham. It’s strange to see an assistant manager that specialises in that side of the game, but it makes complete sense when you understand how highly Hopkin values it.
In Niall Murray’s analysis of Hopkin’s Livingston for TheTwoPointOne last year, he found that an impressive 25% of all the goals scored by Livi in the 2017/18 season came within the last 15 minutes of the game. Notably in the first leg of their playoff against Dundee United, where late goals from Josh Mullin and Scott Pittman turned the tie completely on its head.
Livi were 3rd in the league for defensive duels as well, behind only Brechin and Queen of the South – which is especially impressive given they were one of the best teams in the league that season. They were still fighting and battling for the ball at almost every opportunity, and that’s exactly what Hopkin wants. He couldn’t have the best, most technically-gifted players in the league at a team like Livingston, but he made sure they were as well-drilled and as fit as anyone in the division, and it reaped massive rewards.
There are still many questions about the budget Morton will be operating on next season, but it’s unlikely to be much more than what Hopkin had available to him at the Tony Macaroni Arena. To have Morton competing at the top end of the table, he’ll have to look to replicate the work rate and tenacity his Livingston players showed in every game they played for him. Early signs are suggesting that’s what he’s planning on doing.
It would be unfair to pigeonhole Hopkin as a coach that prefers direct, “agricultural” football especially as we’re still working with a relatively small sample size. Yes, that’s exactly what his Livingston team were, who were unsurprisingly league leaders when it came to aerial duels, but that could just be down to that style favouring that particular group of players.
If Hopkin still has the likes of Michael Tidser, Chris Millar and Charlie Telfer available to him next season then it would make more sense to play with a style which keeps the ball on the deck as much as possible and gets the best out of those players. We don’t know though, and only Hopkin’s recruitment will begin to shed some light on how he plans on setting his Morton team up. If we have to become complete hammer-throwers or transition into Tony Pulis’ Stoke on steroids to get promoted, then I’ll happily tilt my neck towards the sky and accept it.
It sounds a bit mad to say this about someone who less than a year ago was the hottest managerial prospect in the country, but Hopkin likely still feels like he has something to prove. How important Hopkin’s assistant David Martindale was to his success is a question that has long followed him about, especially given Livi haven’t exactly struggled since he stepped down. There’s obviously his spell at Bradford City as well, a period which is difficult to read too much into. It’s easy to see why he took the job, there was massive potential there, but there’s no telling how much the shocker of a squad he inherited and shambles he encountered at boardroom level at Valley Parade hindered him. He’s far from the first Scottish manager to pick the wrong move down south, and it’s probably best to just pretend he was never there. If I had to live in Bradford for 6 months, I’d probably do the same.
Taking Morton to the Premiership, or at least getting them very close, would obviously help prove his few doubters wrong – especially if he plays a completely different brand of football to the one his Livingston team became known for. Hopkin won’t have taken the job on unless he’s been promised enough resources and backing to make the club successful. The three-year deals handed to him and McElhone would suggest they have that support, and they’ve been given enough of a platform to build by a football club that’s crying out for some stability.
You don’t have to grow up a lifelong supporter to “get” a football club, it does help though. Hopkin’s supported Morton since he was a boy, became one of the best players ever produced at Cappielow and just happens to be the 4th highest shareholder in the club as wall. He wants it to grow, and badly wants it to get to a level it hasn’t been at for decades now. From his first interview, it’s clear to see Hopkin understands the club and its supporters much more than his predecessors ever did.
Johansson, and Duffy before him, constantly talked Morton down. In fact, Duffy is still doing it. Only two weeks ago he was asking supporters “what they expect?” after his pal Peter Houston was sacked for being about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. Morton seemed to be no more than a plucky village outfit to them, just lucky to be mixing it with the likes of Brechin and Alloa on a weekly basis.
Morton fans have no delusions of grandeur or any real belief that one of Scottish Football’s “sleeping giants” is ready to be awoken at Cappielow, but they know for a fact their club can be much more than it currently is. Not only does the guy in charge now believe that too, but with an even smaller club he has went and shown it is more than possible.
There is zero guarantee that Morton will even end up in the playoffs next season. Arbroath winning the league and Dundee going to the third-tier would be very on-brand for Scottish Football’s most mental division, so it’s wise to refrain from making many predictions. For once though, there is at least unity. A fanbase that are behind their manager, chief executive and hopefully their board soon as well. Everything seems to be moving in the right direction, and those behind the scenes finally seem determined to stop Morton being one of the biggest under-achievers in Scottish Football. It might not work out, but at the end of the day, at least we’re not Falkirk.
By Evan McFarlane (@EvanMcFarlane)
TwoPointOne article by Niall Murray – https://www.thetwopointone.com/what-makes-livingston-so-good/
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