Brian Rice: Hamilton boss on John Hughes & hurting kids

John Hughes and Brian Rice
Brian Rice, right, worked under John Hughes at Falkirk, Hibernian and Inverness Caledonian Thistle

"I'd be lying in bed at night and I'd hear him shouting up the stair 'Chipper! Chipper!', so I'd go down and Yogi would be there with the big tactics board in the living room..."

The house in the Black Isle was owned by John Hughes. Yogi. The then Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager. When erstwhile assistant Brian Rice rejoined him in the Highlands in 2015, he told him to stay while he sorted himself out. But Rice never left, instead spending a memorable year cooking, cleaning and responding to late-night yelps from his "big pal".

"What kind of flat-mate was he? Fantastic. Even if he'd just watch the TV while I did all the housework," says Rice. "It was just me and him in the middle of nowhere. He'd cycle to training in the morning - 14 miles - and tell me to give him a 10-minute start in case he fell off. I'd overtake him driving in and every day, without fail, he'd give me the finger when I passed him and it was the same on the way home.

"People get the wrong impression of him. They think he's all about the carry on but it was constant football in that house. He lives for it and I'm the same. It's in my head. People say we put too much into it and need an escape but the only time we'd switch our phones off was when we were playing golf."

'I'm the 15th best player in any pub'

A handful of years have passed and, while that shared compulsion remains, some things have changed significantly. Hughes has been considered unemployable since an appalling three-month stint that left Raith Rovers in League One, while Rice has emerged from his considerable shadow to take his first head coach's job with Hamilton Academical.

Now 10 months into his tenure, Rice is finding his own identity away from the double act that characterised his lengthy coaching career. He says it's "criminal for Yogi to be sitting in the house" and has asked him a couple of times to come in to Hamilton to do sessions without success. But without him by his side, what kind of manager is he?

It turns out, the 56-year-old Rice is an obsessive who doesn't sleep well so is bunkered down in his sparse office at quarter to seven each morning, cradling a coffee and plotting the day ahead. A couple of times a week, he will leave just after lunch to head to Liverpool or Manchester to watch English under-23 sides, getting home after midnight before returning to his office "before the crack of dawn" to do it all over again.

Friends say he takes football too seriously. That he needs to lighten up and get a hobby. To stop huffing and blaming himself when Hamilton lose and worrying about the next game when they win. Rice waves away their concerns. He's too busy watching football, reading voraciously about other sports, fretting about the players he doesn't pick, and agonising about ruining kids' dreams.

Lewis Smith, right, is one of the youngsters making an impact in the Hamilton side
Lewis Smith, right, is one of the youngsters making an impact in the Hamilton side

That, he says, has been his biggest challenge. The media duties and dealing with the board have been a source of angst, too, but those don't compare with the torment of telling a teenager that his time at Hamilton is up.

"I worry about those kids," says Rice, who thrived at Hibernian after being released by Celtic and went on to sign for Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough before returning home with Falkirk. "Am I destroying their dream? Should I be doing more for them? I find that a weight on my shoulders.

"When I was 17, somebody gave me a chance but too many kids get discarded too early. If I walk into any pub in Scotland, I'll be the 15th best player in there. But the 14 who are better have never done anything. It's all about sacrifices and making the most of your chances. And I don't want my kids here to be one of those guys standing at the bar."

'We should have more points, but we'll learn'

Rice had been offered opportunities to step up before, but was never interested. He doesn't like the title of 'manager' for a start. He's a coach. He loves being on the grass - "or the astro, as it is here".

But a long association with Hamilton owner Ronnie MacDonald and director of football Allan McGonigal - plus the club's determination to restore their reputation as somewhere young players could thrive, and the nagging feeling that the chance might not come again - convinced him to accept the challenge.

Hamilton were 11th in the Scottish Premiership at the time, but Rice helped them edge up a place and ensure a sixth successive season in the top flight. This term, the focus has been on lowering the age of the side - so much so that the club have fielded six of the seven youngest starting XIs in the division this season.

"They are inexperienced, but they are in the team because they are good players," he says of the likes of Lewis Smith, Ross Cunningham and Ronan Hughes.

"I think we should have more points than we've got because we've lost quite a few leads recently, but they'll learn. Their energy and enthusiasm lifts me and every day I can't wait to get into my work and it's the same for the older boys in the squad."

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