Heart of Midlothian supporters don’t need to be reminded of Colin Cameron’s exploits in maroon - the box-to-box midfielder is the very definition of a club legend. But fans of the Gorgie club are perhaps not quite as well-versed in Cameron’s coaching journey.

Now serving as Ian Murray’s assistant at his boyhood club Raith Rovers, it’s fair to say that Cameron’s return to Kirkcaldy has been circuitous. There have been spells as a 40-something player-manager plying his trade in the lower leagues, stints in the Lowland League, and even a significant period where the former Scotland internationalist was out of the game entirely and driving a taxi.

It has been quite the journey.

It all started in 2010 when Cameron departed Dundee and was on the lookout for a new club. He had already started his coaching badges and, at 38, was already beginning to ponder what life after playing would look like when an opportunity arose in Scotland’s third tier. Little did he know, though, that it would only be the beginning.

“Jimmy Nicholl was the manager at Cowdenbeath when I left Dundee, and he asked me to come in and be his assistant,” Cameron recalled. “I was still playing and it was pretty good because having worked under Jimmy before, I knew all about the experience he had gained and how that would help me on the ladder toward coaching. So I had no hesitation in agreeing to going along to Cowdenbeath.

Colin Cameron gets to grips with Ross County's Michael GardyneColin Cameron gets to grips with Ross County's Michael Gardyne (Image: SNS)

“We had a season and then after that I was down in Largs doing my A-license when I got a phone call from the chairman. He was saying that Jimmy had agreed to go to Kilmarnock with Jimmy Calderwood as his assistant, and Donald Findlay offered me the manager’s job. I had only had a year of coaching but I still felt it was a bit of a no-brainer really. It was just so I could see really – I didn’t know if I wanted to be a coach or a manager. I thought it was too good an opportunity to turn down.

“The fact that I was already at the club and knew the players gave me a headstart, so I wouldn’t be going into it blind. The important thing for me was to bring in an assistant manager that I knew and that I could trust, so I asked Lee Makel, who was my team-mate at Hearts. I knew he had been coaching previously and he had no hesitations about coming in. We worked really well together.”

Cameron is being modest. You see, ‘really well’ doesn’t quite cover what followed. In his debut campaign as player-manager, the Blue Brazil motored to the third-tier title, securing promotion to the old First Division, and stayed up in their first season – despite the club’s part-time status. Not bad for someone taking his first steps into out-and-out management.

“We won the old Second Division in our first year and it was pretty much nip-and-tuck with Paul Sheerin’s Arbroath,” Cameron explained. “He was playing as well so we were both player-managers going for the title! We managed to edge in front towards the end of the season and we won the league, which was a fantastic start. But we knew the following season was going to be even tougher alongside all of the big boys in the First Division because they were all full-time and we were part-time. It’s always going to be a tough league for a team like Cowdenbeath.

“At home, nothing really changed in terms of the home fans. We got maybe two or three hundred per game, which was the same as the season before, but we got bigger gates because we were playing bigger teams with bigger supports. From that side of things, it definitely helped.

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“I had a group of about 10 young boys at the club that I trained full-time, and then the core of the first team were part-time. There were some good young boys there and a few of them went on to play full-time. You’ve also got to make good use of the loan market. The club hasn’t got money so you have to beg and borrow where you can. But at the same time, I was very fortunate that we were able to bring in Kane Hemmings, who was at Rangers at the time. That was obviously Donald Findlay’s influence that helped us out with that one!”

Cowdenbeath finished in eighth place, two points clear of Dunfermline in ninth, and achieved the club’s goal of simply surviving in the second tier. But the following campaign got off to a poor start and with Cowdenbeath occupying the relegation play-off spot, Cameron left Central Park by mutual consent.

“It was a really tough one,” he said. “Donald and myself had a right good connection and we still keep in touch. We both agreed to go our separate ways and there was no animosity whatsoever between me and the club. It was really tough.

“The first season [in the Championship] is always the same – people are unsure of your abilities and you can get away with a few things, especially early doors. But in the second season, teams are more aware of you so it becomes that wee bit harder.

“I think we were second bottom at the time and it was one of those where it was for the benefit of the club to go and get somebody with maybe a bit more experience. Jimmy went back to them that season and they beat Dunfermline in the play-offs to survive another season, but they went down the year after that.”

Cameron wouldn’t be out of the game for long though, and soon found himself reversing a decision that he had taken only a few months previously. The Hearts great had decided to retire from playing as he no longer felt up to the pace of the game in the second tier, but another approach from further down the pyramid caused Cameron to reconsider.

He said: “The thing is, the season that I left Cowdenbeath I had decided to stop playing. I just felt it was the right thing to do. Playing against full-time boys all the time, I was maybe not influencing games as much as I would have liked, so I decided to take a backwards step. I kept myself fit and ticking over, and in the end I wasn’t out the game for too long; I think I joined Berwick three months later in January.

Colin Cameron was player/manager at Berwick Rangers after leaving CowdenbeathColin Cameron was player/manager at Berwick Rangers after leaving Cowdenbeath (Image: SNS)

“When I first got in and seen what I had in the squad, and I felt we were lacking a bit of experience in the middle of the park. So I decided to put the boots on again. I would have been about 40 but I still had the enthusiasm and I was still relatively fit. And at part-time level, playing wasn’t such a big issue for me. I felt that I could still influence games at that level, and more so the players around me.

“We finished the season relatively well – we didn’t quite get to the play-offs, which was the aim, but we were too far away when I first took over. And then the following season, again it was frustrating because we just missed out on the play-offs, but we reached the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup before we were knocked out by Hibs at Easter Road. Our main target was the league but it was nice to get a cup run like that. And it was a big thing for the club financially – I think it pretty much paid for the whole season! But at the end of the day it was a failure because we didn’t get into the play-offs.

“We had some really good players and there were games where we were unplayable, but we just couldn’t find the consistency to mount a challenge. And then the following season, it was actually quite disappointing how it ended. I got on really well with the chairman Brian Porteous and we had a great relationship, but there were other members on the board that I knew were unhappy.

“Believe it or not, we were second in the league and then we got knocked out the cup by Annan. The club had budgeted for another round or two and I was told on the bus back that if we didn’t win the following week up at Montrose I was getting sacked. In the end, I was sacked and we were three points off second place.

“It was outwith the chairman’s hands because the other board members weren’t happy, so it was just one of those things. It left a wee bit of a sour taste in my mouth because I had faith in my ability to do well for the club. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s not always fair. But the way I look at it, I was still relatively successful. Getting to the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup with a team like Berwick hadn’t happened in a very long time.

“We actually played really well [against Hibs]. It ended 3-0 but the boys acquitted themselves really well. They got the ball down, passed it well and played the way we liked to play. To a man, everyone played to their abilities and we enjoyed it.”

After being relieved of his duties at Berwick Rangers, Cameron found himself dropping down a couple of levels for a few years – until another opportunity reared its head.

“Senior-wise I was out of the game but I was still connected to football,” Cameron recalled. “I was at Edusport Academy, which is now Caledonian Braves. I coached their under-20s when I was still at Berwick because they were training on Friday nights at The Spartans, whereas we trained on Tuesday and Thursday nights. They then relocated to Strathclyde Park and went into the Lowland League. I was assistant manager to Ricky Waddle, who is still managing them today.

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“I took the 20s on the Friday nights and then I was the assistant manager for the first team on the Saturday, so I was still involved in football. I was never really out the game but when Ian offered me the assistant’s job at Airdrie, it was too big an opportunity to turn down.”

Cameron returned to the professional set-up in 2019, but there would be a big difference this time. Previously he had worked as a manager, but this time he would be going to Airdrieonians as a No.2. He had tried his hand at both roles in his coaching career and after a period of soul-searching, decided he enjoyed assisting more than managing – but it wouldn’t last.

“I always liked the changing room – being in amongst the boys and all that,” Cameron smiles. “Being the assistant, you can still do that. As a manager you need to have that divide if you want to get the best out the players and put demands on them. Being the assistant, you can still have a laugh and a joke with the boys. But at the same time, the boys know that if I’m not happy with things then they will know about it.

“There’s less pressure involved too obviously. Ian is the manager and he’s dealing with the press pretty much all the time. Occasionally he’ll ask me to do it but he usually does it, which leaves me to go about my job, do the coaching, and act as a go-between between the players and the manager. I’d like to say, I think it works well.

“At Airdrie, I joined in October and then Covid hit in the March. I didn’t even have a full season and then they got rid of me. Last in, first out – that kind of thing. That felt a wee bit shit, for want of a better word. We had went from being mid-table to only a few points behind Falkirk and Raith at the top of the table and we still had to play both of them, so we had an outside chance of winning the league.

“Covid threw everything up in the air and then I had a few years where I did nothing. That was the only period I was totally out the game. Clubs had to tighten their belts during Covid and there weren’t many jobs going, and then you start to wonder where the next opportunity to get back in will come from.”

Colin Cameron briefly served as Ian Murray's No.2 at AidrieoniansColin Cameron briefly served as Ian Murray's No.2 at Aidrieonians (Image: SNS)

For a while, Cameron became accustomed to the notion that that next opportunity might not come along at all. He was out of the beautiful game for the first time of his life – and getting used to it.

“I had almost resigned myself to saying, ‘that’s me’ and that my time in football was over,” Cameron admitted. “I figured that if it was going to be then it was going to be. I got a wee job doing a taxi run and a school run to get me up and out my bed. I finally got a membership in a golf club in Dunfermline because I had the time. It was fine – I had no pressure on me. I kept an eye on the football when it was on TV and I thought that it was over.

“It came as a bit of a shock when [Raith Rovers chairman] Steven MacDonald phoned me. My daughter does athletics and I was waiting in the car to pick her up. I was on the phone for a few minutes without realising he was going to offer me the assistant manager’s job. I actually thought he was going to ask me to come to a game to do hospitality! But he kindly offered me the assistant manager’s job and if I’m being honest, it was probably the only club that I would have said yes to.

“Even at that, I told him he had to leave it with me. I had went from being involved in football for all my days to having a couple of years out the game. Things changed around holidays with the family and whatnot; we could do things when we wanted, but that would all change again. So it wasn’t just me that would make the decision. I spoke to my wife and my two girls about it and they all said pretty much straight away that I should take it. Because it was Raith and because Ian was the manager, it was an easy decision once my wife and the girls said that they were on board with it.

“It was pretty seamless going in there because I knew Ian and I knew the club. To be honest, at that point in time it hadn’t changed much since I was playing there! Thankfully that’s changed in the past few years. I settled in really well really early. It’s like riding a bike, I suppose. There has been a big change around the club, especially since the investors came in last year. Everything is changing and improving, and hopefully we can continue to do that. There has been so much positivity in the season just passed and that got us far in the league but we just fell at the final hurdle.”

The 2023/24 campaign was a memorable one for supporters. Raith pushed Dundee United for the title and finished second in the league, making it to the Premiership play-off final before ultimately being beaten over two legs by Ross County. The upturn in the team’s form established a feel-good factor around Stark’s Park and the home crowd swelled as the season progressed.

The punters had good reason to turn up. Particularly in the first half of the season, Raith had a remarkable habit of scoring dramatic and often decisive last-minute goals. Every week it seemed as though the Kirkcaldy club would score a last-gasp winner, and the team simply didn’t know when they were beaten. By mid-December, Raith hadn’t dropped a single point from the 75th minute onwards and their late goals had won them an additional 19 points. United had the second-best record from 75 minutes onwards, gaining an additional five points.

Colin Cameron is enjoying being back at his boyhood club Raith RoversColin Cameron is enjoying being back at his boyhood club Raith Rovers (Image: SNS)

“The group of players that we have just keep going and going, right up until that final whistle,” Cameron explained. “They never stop believing that no matter what the score is, they can still pull something out the bag. On the backroom staff we kept looking at each other and going, ‘Jesus, we’ve done it again’.

“Listen, it’s no any good for your heart! We won 20 games in the league last season and no more than two of them were by more than one goal – and one of those was in a dead rubber on the last day of the season against Arbroath. There really isn’t much in that league – and there never is – but we were able to keep going to the last whistle and scored loads of late, late goals. I think that added to the excitement for the fans.

“That positivity has continued into this season. I think we sold 1,000 season tickets in two days, and it took a lot longer to reach that last season. Things are going well. Bringing in someone with the experience of Lewis Stevenson, and him being a local lad, is good. I’m sure there will be a couple more to come in and a few boys have re-signed so yeah, it’s looking good.

“The remit for the season just passed was to reach the play-offs and I think it will be the same this season because I don’t think the manager’s budget has changed. We’ve got to make sure we hit the ground running in the new season because things have changed. We are now maybe a bit of a target for other teams after finishing second.”

It’s been a long old road for Cameron to get to this point, and it wasn’t so long ago that he was wondering if he had a coaching career at all. He has tasted dizzying highs and morale-sapping lows, and his flirtation with chucking it all in begs an obvious question. Did he make the right decision to get back into coaching? Is he enjoying himself?

“Of course! I’ve got that wee extra buzz about me,” Cameron grins. “The fact that it’s the club I started with – it’s come full circle. I started out at Raith as a player and now I am back there coaching. It would be great to achieve promotion into the Premiership. I’d have then done it as a player and a manager with the same club, and I’m not sure if too many people have done that.”