ON DAYS like today with the sea sparkling, the coolest cafe on the promenade packed with yummy mummies and the partly-imported sands freshly flattened by the beach-roller,
Portobello can look positively Californian. But is it stretching things to say that on nights like the one at Ibrox earlier this month, which officially began their reduced status under Alan Stubbs, Hibernian were almost Barcelona?
Whoosh! Not the sound of the lapping Firth of Forth but Hearts fans revving up their computers to fire off incredulous, chortling posts. Hang on though you lot: I mean almost Barca compared with last season. In one game I’m pretty sure I saw more Hibs passes than in the whole of 2013-14. Strictly speaking I mean the second half of it – the shambolic plummet into the Championship. And I’m talking about short, quick, bold passes on the ground as opposed to big, horrible hoofs. Yes, this game was merely the Petrofac Training Cup and Hibs still ended up losing it. But latterly under Terry Butcher Hibs were worthy of a competition you might have called the Petrified Cup.
Now, one game where you thrash Rangers 1-2 doesn’t quite constitute a style revolution. And tomorrow these good intentions could all go flying out of the window because it’s the Edinburgh derby. But Stubbs, a veteran of 25 Old Firm derbies and eight on Merseyside, cuts a serenely determined figure sipping his cappuccino on the waterfront.
I’ve just asked him if he is aware of Hearts’ reputation for being mentally stronger in the fixture, well in evidence last season. “I’m not interested in that,” he says in his soft Scouse accent. “Going into this game my players will know to my eyes exactly what a derby means. It’s difficult to explain without giving tactics away, but their approach to derbies will be different to what it’s been before.”
Stubbs has settled well in Porty even though his wife Mandy will stay in Formby on Merseyside for now while their son Sam, who is on Wigan Athletic’s books, prepares for his GCSEs next year and their daughter Heather heads for nursing college having learned she gained the grades she needed only a few hours ago. He has always loved Edinburgh from his playing days in Scotland and after our chat will take his coaching staff to the Festival. Some comedy before the derby blood and thunder, perhaps.
But frankly I’m surprised to be speaking to Stubbs today. New managers, and especially new Hibs managers given the short time they tend to hang around, like to get a few more matches under their belts before agreeing to the longer interview. But this is a man who, after all he has been through in life, is not afraid of very much.
His battles with cancer are well known. They have left him with one fewer testicle and a scar from surgery, after which 40 staples were needed to put him back together. In the no-nonsense, unsentimental way of footballers, his Celtic team-mates insisted on a fairly full body inspection when he stepped back into the communal showers. Have his first charges in management been equally curious?
“Not yet,” he laughs. “Changing areas have come on a bit since then; it’s not a free-for all at Hibs. But if they want a look I’ll show them. The scar I mean, not me missing ball!”
Maybe those downed Hibees who survived the summer cull have yet to re-discover their bantersome bravado. Stubbs says that when he first walked into Easter Road the mood was desperate. “I encountered a club at its lowest ebb. The relegation had been a huge blow. It’s flippant to say that players, some of them, are not much bothered when it happens – everyone was affected.
“Mindsets were very negative. Voices were monotone – depressed. There was a lot of referring back to the past. I spoke to them, to find out why [relegation happened], find out how. Players can try to distance themselves from it: ‘It was him, he did such-and-such’. There was a bit of that when I arrived but not too much. If a player gets told to do a certain thing it’s very difficult for him to go against that. But blaming the previous management is easy. Everyone was involved. The hardest thing sometimes is to look in the mirror and say: ‘I was a part of that’. To be fair to the lads, they’ve taken their share of the blame.”
Stubbs is careful not to criticise Butcher outright or to claim his preferred style is superior, although even this early, anxious as the faithful are for some good news, others are already doing that. But, out on the training ground, he had to change “the complete mentality”. He talks of trust in players, how the best managers all have it, how when he played it was a “brilliant thing to see” but how John Barnes at Celtic failed to demonstrate it. Meanwhile at Easter Road, he says: “The players now know they have a manager who does trust them.”
Implied criticism of what went before? Perhaps. What did he think happened to the trust last season? “When you are playing in a style you have to believe in it. Whether the players believed in that style you’d have to ask them. But I think I know the answer.”
So: the Stubbs style. Let’s re-emphasise that the evidence only amounts to two games thus far, and in the second goalkeeper Mark Oxley scored from the most direct, long-ball play in the club’s 139-year history, but where does it come from? After all, wasn’t he was a central defender for whom the euphemism was “rugged” for Bolton Wanderers, Celtic and boyhood idols Everton in a 20-year career before coaching the under-21s at Goodison for a further seven?
“Aye, I was, but hopefully the people thought I was a rugged central defender who could play a bit. I always tried to. I wanted to play good football no matter what. Sometimes I got the wrath of my managers for taking risks, but I always thought I was in control. The easiest option is to just boot the ball but I tried to be creative, to look for a good pass. I wanted to be different. Not in a clever way or completely off-the-cuff, but with purpose.” He says he hasn’t watched recordings of Hibs’ demise when booted the ball most assuredly was, and the final Sportscene of the season mashed up half a dozen of the highest moonshots from the play-off defeat by Hamilton Accies (and to think there is hardly any surviving footage of the Famous Five). “I don’t want any team of mine to do that,” adds Stubbs. “As long as I’m in management I’ll never do that.”
He is 42 and a son of Kirkby, the Liverpool overspill which became a town, where his mum Doreen still lives. He can tell you stories about Paul Gascoigne, how the daft one stuck bananas or the whistle from a kettle up team-mates’ car exhausts; arrived for training in a David Ginola wig; and would invariably do things in threes (get three tattoos, consume three packets of wine gums). “I haven’t spoken to him for a couple of years,” Stubbs says of his ex-Rangers rival and Everton chum. “I only learn about Gazza through the papers and there’s this fear that one day the news will be bad. But I hope he stays well because, forget the football, he’s a fantastic bloke with a heart of gold.”
There are stories too about the Three Amigos: Jorge Cadete, who seemed to be able to duck training and was forever enjoying a massage; Pierre van Hooijdonk, the epitome of Dutch forthrightness whose reaction to be being dropped was “f*** off”; and Paolo Di Canio who hogged the mirror (“Bella Figa! My mother gave birth to a beautiful baby!”) and couldn’t understand why Celtic didn’t supply bathrobes like in Milan.
But the biggest influence on Stubbs’ life was his dear, old dad Ronald, who wasn’t a player, simply a fan, one of the sport’s self-taught intellectuals, who delivered cigarettes but, crucially, ferried the youngest of his five kids to juvenile games and who was so thrilled when Stubbs eventually signed for the Toffeemen, even though he was a man given to few displays of emotion.
“He was my No 1 supporter, did everything for me. If I didn’t fancy a game he’d say in his quiet way: ‘Come on son, we’re going’. If I played well he told me, if I didn’t he let me be. He died of cancer, you know. He told a friend of mine: ‘I want to take all the cancer from Alan, take it with me so he’ll be alright’. That was typical of Dad: do anything for his family, selfless to the last.”
Stubbs recounts how he overcame cancer in his recent book. “In layman’s terms,” he writes, “they’d opened me up and moved various organs out and to the side to get to the tumour.” Then later, in terrible pain: “I could feel the staples, I could feel my insides, I could feel everything.” He smiles when I quote the lines back to him a dramatic voice. “Sometimes in football books there are bits which have been glorified. But me writing those words still didn’t come close to what the pain was like.
“I live with cancer,” he continues. “You and I will be talking about the derby and the next minute someone could walk into our caff and I would know they’re going through leukaemia. It’s there all the time for me even though I’ve come through mine. I probably only need check-ups once every five years but I go every December for peace of mind and I ask Father Christmas for a good result. This brilliant doctor, Peter Clarke, an Evertonian, always wants to know what’s going on at the club. Only this year he might ask me about Hibs.”
Cancer took Stubbs to the “darkest, darkest places – I wouldn’t wish it on anyone” but once in an Old Firm game, among the abuse he could actual hear above the unholy racket, someone wished cancer on him. Football does that to people, he says, and derbies do that to people, and afterwards they might be appalled at what just happened. Derbies got to Stubbs, too. As an Everton fan he sometimes played the occasion rather than the match, and after one defeat by Liverpool shook Jamie Carragher’s hand so fiercely that it prompted a bit of a running feud.
Stubbs has shaken Craig Levein’s hand a few times on the coaching circuit. He has never met Robbie Neilson and says: “There will be respect, but of course we’re embarking on a rivalry.” I ask him about Hibs’ ambitions this season because on the day his appointment was announced the club seemed to be shooting for the top of the Championship, only for the man himself to state 24 hours later that the aim was to return to the top flight “as quickly as possible”, leading some to think the club were accepting they might have to spend a second year in the division. “Promotion is the aim,” he says. “If it wasn’t, what’s the point? The way everyone’s talking it’s going to be Rangers then Hearts then us – in that order. Let them talk. We’ll go about this our way.”
We discuss some of the players he has inherited, including Alex Harris who among the younger element seemed the most shell-shocked by relegation and also Liam Craig, maybe the experienced man who disappointed the most. “Alex has huge potential but he’s still growing as a player and as a man. Football is really all about man-management. In my day if you did something wrong you were fined. Now these parameters have been lifted. You have to work with the young rather than against them and that’s as true of society as it is football. Managers have to be able to listen to them and understand them, be a father figure sometimes and also a psychologist. Regarding Liam, I’ve probably had more conversations with him than anyone else. He felt a huge responsibility being the captain.” Against Rangers, voted man of the match, Craig looked more like the player Hibs thought they had bought.
Views on teenage footballers
Stubbs has interesting views on teenage footballers. He thinks it “absurd” that a 17 year old – and here we’re talking England – can earn £250,000 a year and wants to see the introduction of a proper pay structure for the young. He says this as a former YTS footballer who earned £29.50 a week – “Supplemented by hiding in train toilets and charging the fares to expenses!” – where duties included cleaning boots, painting stanchions and, as a punishment, he would have to strip to his jockstrap in front of the senior pros and sing a nursery rhyme.
That unnerved some of the youth but not Stubbs. This is not a surprise when you spend an enjoyable and at times inspiring hour in his company. Cancer, he says, has made him “more carefree, living day by day – what’s the point in worrying?” Maybe some were scared off the Hibs job because of the casualty rate but not Stubbs.
He wants to be a good manager, a great one. You’ve got to aim high, he says, although we still don’t know what kind of boss he will be. As a player, he had experience of absolute polar opposites in Bruce Rioch and Wim Jansen. The former was “a right bastard with a real nasty edge” who if someone stepped out of line would give him an “old-school going-over”.In the five-a-sides, Jansen was a pussycat by comparison, telling his hungover or tired Celtic players that training was cancelled and they would try again the next day.
“Right now I’m probably leaning towards Wim,” says Stubbs. “I hope if there’s anything of Bruce in me it doesn’t surface too often and I’m sure the Hibs players are too.” But they woud be wrong to assume he is a complete softie. “I’ve always had a fieriness. Maybe in view of what’s happened to me in life it’s on a low heat. But it hasn’t completely gone out.”