The Ayr United Manager talks to AM
By Iain Ferguson
The life of a football manager can be a lonely one. A string of bad results and fans can turn their back on you while opposition supporters vent their anger at you during games.
So returning to your family after training and games offers a release from the incessant pressure of being a modern-day football boss.
But for Ayr United manager Lee Bullen that crutch of family life comes into play sometimes only for a couple of days a fortnight.
The family home is in Sheffield some 260 miles from Ayr and a five-hour drive. Lee makes that trip as often as he can but with most games on a Saturday and training resuming on a Monday morning, it’s often difficult for him to enjoy that precious time with his wife and twin daughters.
Just over a year on from his move back north, Edinburgh born Lee said: “Football management is a very selfish job and you need the full support of your family. At first I think there was a bit of trepidation from the Board as to how I was going to react being away from my partner and children. But what it does mean is I can watch the academy or ladies’ teams on a Sunday if I’m not going home and I can attend midweek games. I’m not rushing for school pick-ups or to catch up with family. I know that sounds selfish but I’ve met Alex Ferguson and I know his wife was very supportive. And of course, the great Ayr United manager Ally MacLeod had the backing of Faye who I have got to know since being up here.
“Having that sort of family support is great but you’ve got to be mindful you do need a break away. Every second week when I get the chance to go down the road for 24 or 48 hours, it’s great to be back with the kids and family.”
Lee’s own football career was somewhat nomadic. After a spell in junior football and in the lower senior leagues in Scotland, he headed to Australia, China and Hong Kong and then back to England.
He had a spell at Falkirk as player-coach before returning south to become youth coach of Sheffield Wednesday and spent 11 years there in various coaching roles before Ayr came calling.
It was in January 2022 he was appointed manager of the then struggling Scottish championship side. So what made him leave the comfortable existence as coach of Sheffield Wednesday under 23s to become Manager of Ayr United?
Lee takes up the story. “I’d been temporary gaffer of Sheffield Wednesday on three occasions due to managers moving on. The first time I did it I knew I wasn’t ready but the second spell I had I really enjoyed the experience, but I knew Steve Bruce was already earmarked for the job.
“Then Steve moved on to Newcastle and during that third spell in charge I got a feel that being a full-time manager was something I really wanted to do. I did quite well on the last two occasions and I thought, if the chairman is going to give it to me it’s going to be this time. But he didn’t, so I decided if I am going to get the chance to be my own man I have to move on.”
At around the time Lee was having these thoughts, Ayr United were going through a torrid time results wise and parted company with Jim Duffy who had only been boss for 81 days following the departure of David Hopkin whose tenure was also brief at six months.
David Smith, Chairman of the Somerset Park club, had earlier appointed Graeme Mathie as Managing Director and it was the latter who was instrumental in Lee having an interview for the vacant job.
Explaining his transition from coach to manager Lee recalled: “There were two roads I could have done taking my first steps into management. I could have gone to a relatively big club like Sheffield Wednesday in English League One but obviously that wasn’t going to happen, or to a team like Dundee fancied to do well in the Scottish Championship.
“The alternative to that is to take on a club that’s a bit of a project. A start from scratch type of thing and that’s how I viewed Ayr. David Smith had come in as the new owner and chairman and Graeme Mathie had taken over as Managing Director. The club was heading in a whole new direction off the park. That was the initial impression that got me interested. After speaking to the Chairman and the other Board members and Graeme, I knew there was a sense of realistic ambition.”
Lee was appointed on Friday January 7, 2022 and immediately jumped in his car for the drive north and to take charge of Ayr for their league match the following day to the then high flying Arbroath.
There was no honeymoon period as he went straight into the dug-out. The eloquent Bullen lifted the lid on his reasoning behind this.
“I could have elected to watch the game from the back of the stand but Davie White, the Head of the Academy who had been taking the first team had Covid, so I elected to take the team even though I’d only just met the players. It worked out in the end though as we won 1-0.”
At the end of last season Ayr had to win over Partick Thistle at home to avoid a relegation play-off and did so by 3-1. If they had gone down, Lee had already been told he would have stayed full-time, which was a massive plus when he was being offered the job.
This season, things have gone a lot better on the park with United near the top of the league and vying for either automatic promotion or a play-off spot. At the time of writing, they are looking forward to a Scottish Cup Quarter Final tie with Falkirk.
On the improvement in the results Lee commented: “People may have thought ‘why did he keep so many players from last year?’ But from the turn of the year we were fifth-top on results. The lads I kept were all at a good age and had shown a great mentality to battle away and stay up so I think that was a positive for the young players going into this season. We also recruited well with players like Dipo Akinyemi, Frankie Musonda and Jayden Mitchell-Lawson coming in.
“But did I see our success this year coming? I’d be telling a lie if I said I did. It was hope more than anything. We played well in pre-season in the League Cup section but didn’t get the results. I thought we could finish clear of relegation worries but things just built once the league began.”
Lee emphasised the importance of the Academy coaches saying: “The Academy is great here. A club like Ayr has to bring through its own players while sprinkling the little bit of money we have to bring in more experienced players.
“Some of the most important coaches at clubs are the ones that take the under 8s and under 10s. I couldn’t do it, I don’t know why. It takes a special type of coach or person to look after these kids and have the patience to do so.”
Player recruitment is also key to any team’s success and Lee says the recent success of ex-Ayr stars going on to bigger clubs helps attract talent to the club.
“If we are talking to a potential signing we have a document we show them and it’s growing all the time. It contains details of players who have left here to play at a higher level. Guys like Lawrence Shankland, Alan Forrest, Danny Harvie, Tomi Adeloye, Michael Rose and Luke McCowan have all done really well.
“We have also started signing players on longer contracts which means if other clubs come in for them we can get a transfer fee. We were in the position in the January window that we had five or six enquiries for our players which is encouraging.”
How much would bringing tangible success to Ayr United mean to Lee?
“I think it would be a huge tick box for me if I achieved success at Ayr. It’s all about being up there challenging and trying to take the club to the next level. I’ve come to a club that needed a rebuild if it was to get success, rather than a bigger club. That’s a huge tick box for me. If I can achieve things with Ayr United, I would be more proud of that then if I’d done it with a bigger team.”
With work on the development north stand about to begin in the summer comprising new hospitality suites, club offices, 700 seats and a standing area, and of course the Hub that was built 18 months ago enjoying huge success, things are certainly looking up off the park for Ayr.
And with Lee Bullen putting his stamp on the playing side, success is also growing on the fields. It’s a great time to be an Ayr United fan.