Queen of the South: Long-term plan is promotion - James Fowler
|Premiership play-off quarter-final, first-leg: Queen of the South v Rangers|
|Venue: Palmerston Park, Dumfries Date: Saturday, 9 May Kick off: 17:30 BST|
|Coverage: Live text on the BBC Sport website, commentary on BBC Radio Scotland|
|By Richard Wilson, BBC Scotland|
There are times, still, when James Fowler feels awkward when he is called "gaffer".
He is 34 and only appeared in his last game in October, but he has already moved beyond the reputation of his consistently dependable playing career.
He has become a much-admired manager, having guided Queen of the South into the play-offs for the Premiership.
That achievement alone is impressive, yet the season also contained 2-0 and 3-0 victories over Rangers at Palmerston, two 1-0 wins over Hibernian and knocking St Johnstone out of the Scottish Cup.
The campaign still has the potential to be even more significant, which is a further test of Fowler's abilities.
He took over a strong, stable squad when Jim McIntyre left Palmerston for Ross County last September, and Fowler did more than simply maintain those qualities. He built on them.
Now Rangers come to Dumfries on Saturday looking to kick start their own promotion hopes yet also worried about what the occasion might bring.
Their previous visits this season have been chastening, and the experiences may shape how Stuart McCall sets up his team, since Queens skewered them on the cutting edge of their counter-attacks.
The artificial surface might also have created anxieties for Rangers, with McCall not even keen for his players to train on a similar surface at their Murray Park training base.
Fowler would rather not dwell further on the merits or otherwise of the Palmerston pitch, not least because he feels it is unfair to the efforts of his players. They did, after all, draw with Rangers at Ibrox this season and defeat and draw with Hibernian, the other play-off contender from the Championship, at Easter Road.
"I wasn't going to answer any questions on the pitch," Fowler said. "It takes away from the players' achievements. The majority of teams have got an advantage when they play at home.
"If it's a distraction or looking to work an angle that's fine, but it's something that we're not going to comment on any more.
"It's not really been mentioned that we're in the top four for most of the season, people were expecting Falkirk to be there at the end, so we maybe didn't get the credit.
"People are taking a bit more notice now but still writing us off. That's fine, we know how good we are on our day and if we can slip under the radar then we're quite happy with that."
Fowler manages to be both bullish and polite. He is not a forceful personality, yet had the strength of character to hold his own as a young player in a Kilmarnock team managed by the ferocious pair of Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown.
There is an inner assertiveness to Fowler that has served him well in his first months as a manager.
He could have been overwhelmed by the job, since there was a clear ambition to finish in the top four but only one other full-time member of staff when he took over; physio Ross Goodwin.
|Who will prevail in the play-offs?|
|Richard Wilson profiles the three Championship sides involved|
Fowler has had to adapt to management - he is still registered as a player - but also come to terms with the demands that come with working at a club with Queens' resources. His office, for instance, is the referees' room at Broadwood, since Queens train at Clyde's stadium during the week.
He has also worked without an assistant manager, which has added to his workload, but even that is a reflection of his single-mindedness because he wants to make the right appointment rather than a timely one.
"You're doing all the bits and pieces and you're learning all the time," Fowler said. "You get an opportunity and it's not going to be perfect, but you make the most of it.
"I also think it works for Queen of the South, the players training near Glasgow, in terms of who we can attract.
"Although we're not in Dumfries, where we train is only 10 minutes from my house, which makes it easier in terms of getting to see the family. If we were training in Dumfries full-time, I'd need to move house.
"It's been tough and constant, you don't realise the hours involved, and the whole assistant thing at the moment has probably added to my workload.
"The chairman's really keen, now that we're in the top four, for promotion. That's good, you need that ambition. The long-term plan is to get promotion, be in a good financial state, improve the income streams, to try to improve the club from top to bottom."
Much of that is reliant on Fowler. There is a sense that Rangers and Hibs need promotion more than Queens, since they were long-established as top-flight clubs, but there will be no underdog status amongst the home players at Palmerston.
The team is well-organised, strong and combative at the back, capable of crisp passing football, and able to call upon Gavin Reilly and Derek Lyle up front, two of the Championship's top five goalscorers.
Fowler discusses decisions with senior players, but still has the calm, natural authority to not feel a loss of leadership. He is also deeply reflective, and pores over his decisions.
"When you lose, the first person you look at is yourself," he said. "Did I pick the right team? Did I use the right tactics? Where did I go wrong? I did that self-analysis as a player, and as a manager I want to rectify it as soon as I can and you want to go in on a Monday nice and bubbly, not with your face tripping you.
"You're planning most of the week for the game, so I'll get very little sleep in the coming days. It's important that the players know their jobs and take confidence from the previous games."
Even if the odds are against his team, Fowler will still believe his team can prevail.