Dundee assistant boss Jimmy Nicholl quickly realised James McPake was a manager in the making

© SNSJimmy Nicholl.
Jimmy Nicholl.

As an unofficial ref in five-a-side games at Hibs in 2013, Jimmy Nicholl was given no end of grief from a certain James McPake.

That was because the centre-half had a ferocious will to win even in something where there was little but pride at stake.

Nicholl also noticed even at that early stage, McPake was a manager in the making.

He did eventually take that step up at the end of last month when the 34-year-old was appointed Dundee boss with Nicholl coming in as his assistant.

The vastly-experienced 62-year-old, who has been a boss at Raith, Millwall, Cowdenbeath and is also the current Northern Ireland assistant manager, said: “I worked with James when I was at Hibs with Pat Fenlon and you could see then he had it in him to become a manager.

“There are pros who think they’re good pros but are not, but James was always someone I felt gave a bit back and contributed to the club.

“What I mean by that is he was always interested in what we were doing and he would always have time for the younger players.

“He made demands of others and wanted to be better.

“You get some who come in every day, do the work, keep their nose clean and get away as soon as they can.

“But James always showed an interest and was good to have in a dressing-room. He had that leadership quality about him.

“He always had that edge to him where he put demands on his team-mates.

“As assistant manager you always end up refereeing the five-a-sides so your decisions don’t please people.

“And McPake was one of the ones on to me all the time. He’s a winner and wants to win at everything he does.”

The Dundee job is McPake’s first in management and while Nicholl will give him all the help he can, he admitted that ultimately the younger man will make all the tough decisions.

The Northern Irishman, who had a distinguished playing career with the likes of Manchester United, Sunderland, West Brom and Rangers, added: “As assistant manager here my job is to just take things away from him, speak to the players before it needs to get to him.

“I’m just here to help him out. In the end, he’ll have to make the decisions.

“I can listen to James and I can give advice, but he also has to get his wings and away he goes.

“I’ll sit back and let him do it. The manager’s voice always has to be the No.1.

“I have learned that over the years. Experience is a good thing but you can still make a wrong decision at 53 or 63 as opposed to 33.

“If you make more right decisions than wrong decisions you stay in the game – that’s what it comes down to.”

McPake’s back-room team also includes Dave Mackay with Nicholl revealing the former St Johnstone legend approached him for help when he was previously manager at Stirling Albion.

He said: “Dave actually asked me to come in at Stirling Albion but I couldn’t commit to it because of Northern Ireland.

“At that time I was looking at all the Scottish-based players for Michael (Northern Ireland manager O’Neill) so if he needed me at a game on a Tuesday night I couldn’t say no.

“So I felt I couldn’t give Dave what he was looking for but I am looking forward to working with him now.”

Nicholl added: “I’ll be staying on with Northern Ireland because one day Michael will come to me and say ‘Oi, Nicholl, you’re too old to do this now’.

“So I’ll never put myself in a position where I make that decision.

“There may be one or two games here where it’s a problem but I think it will only be a couple.

“By then James will be up and running so it will be OK to miss one or two games.

“He’s got a good team around him.”

“When James asked me I was still with St Mirren so it was a difficult choice.

“Oran had brought me back into the game so it was hard, but he had a decision to make and at that time he couldn’t give me an answer.

“So it was a bit difficult but I enjoyed my time there.

“The team achieved what they wanted to achieve by staying up so it was good to leave there with that.

“I hadn’t spoken to James for a while before he called, I am terrible at keeping in touch with people to be honest!

“You just get on with your career, whether it’s playing or coaching.”