ON A summer’s day the very latest Hibernian manager – looking like he could still do a job at centre-back, it has to be said – was invited to kick a ball through a square hole in an inflatable puffing the new shirt sponsors.
Alan Stubbs took aim and missed. Nine times he failed, even when told he could move nearer the target. Finally he dinked one into the hole but you couldn’t help wondering if the misses might come back to haunt him, possibly in a gaffes show with the ironic title “It’ll Be Alright in the Championship”.
Couldn’t help wondering – hoped they wouldn’t. Naive or just an obliging fellow? Alan Stubbs seemed like the latter yesterday as the hack-pack at East Mains sipped hot soup – a summer’s day, remember – and tried not to spill it on their linen jackets as they toasted the new man and wished him good luck.
Soup in June? A manager taking on a large air-filled object and losing? These seemed to be just some more of those Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine, the name of an album by US rock legends The Doors but also apt for Hibs – the gold mine being the training complex that always gets flagged up, along with the stadium. Except neither was mentioned by Stubbs, replacement for a manager who only got to enjoy the swish facilities for seven months. And there were other differences with previous unveilings.
No musical fanfare this time, no Rod Petrie proclaiming, as he did for Pat Fenlon: “I looked into this man’s eyes and I saw a winner.” No real zingers among the quotes [“The ball is round, it’s meant to roll” – John Collins] and no tempting fate either [“Maybe I will be ze worst manager in ze club’s historee” – apologies for the translation, Franck Sauzee].
This was Leeann Dempster’s show and, given past failures and sackings, she kept it pretty low-key with no introductions, leaving Stubbs to do the talking in his soft Scouse accent.
He started with the Scottish connection, newly revived. “Everybody knows how much I enjoyed playing in Scotland before,” said the former Celtic captain. “I was here here for five years and but for Everton coming in for me – my boyhood team – I probably wouldn’t have left.” One of his Celtic honours under manager Martin O’Neill was the 2001 Scottish Cup, a 3-0 win over Hibs in the final, but it was the dress rehearsal at Easter Road a few weeks before which is burned in Stubbs’ mind.
A random doping test after the cup final of two years before had revealed he was suffering from testicular cancer and this was his second attempt at a first-team return. “It was an emotional time,” he said. “Coming back to play at Easter Road was a huge step for me to overcome.” A second-half substitute and a scorer in a 5-2 win, Stubbs was nevertheless warmly greeted by the Hibs fans. “To get that reception is something that will live with me to the very end,” he added. Stubbs had sympathy for predecessor Butcher. “It’s unkind how circumstances work but I’m a big believer in fate. This is a chance for me to repeat the reception I got – and hopefully the Hibs fans will give a reception to the team when they see the type of football my side plays.”
Ah, the big question, the style one. Stubbs is the eighth manager in ten years and because this is Hibs and you’re never too far away from another unflattering stat – he’s the third doughty, heart-of-oak former English central defender. First there was Tony Mowbray and more recently there was Butcher whose spectacular demise is still difficult to comprehend. It’s the vague link back to Mowbray, however, which is intriguing for the faithful.
Because they’re dogged, because they’re dreamers – but also because they’re probably quite desperate – the fans are wondering if there might be a similarity to when Hibs last had a surprise, untried manager hailing from England’s north who once played for Celtic and who turned up at Easter Road from a coaching gig in the under-age/second team ranks. A similar end result – buccaneering football, firmly in the Hibee tradition – would please them enormously.
Stubbs answered the question twice. The first time, straight of the bat, he said: “I’m going to try and put a team on the pitch that’ll be exciting to watch, score goals and make the fans proud.” The second time, which came when he was asked about the fan protests against chairman Petrie, was more revealing.
“I think the most important thing for supporters is that things are right on the pitch, this is the big answer for them,” he said. “Leeann has come into the club and taken a huge amount of the day-to-day control and, it is fair to say that if she had not been given that control, she wouldn’t be here.
“My focus is the team and it would be wrong to speak about other things. There are always going to be things that people are not happy with but we need to look forward rather than back. I can’t emphasise this enough. We’ve got to be ready for the first game. I’m not going to say: ‘We’ll play lovely football and never mind if we get beat’. I’m here to win. Everyone who remembers me as a player will hopefully know I was a winner and I won’t change as a manager. I do want us to play a good brand of football that will make the fans happy, but I want us to be winning.”
Stubbs talked about Everton where last season, under Roberto Martinez, the fans were moved to hoist a banner celebrating the re-opening of the “School of Science” as cultured football returned to Goodison. “With Roberto first and foremost he demands 100 per cent from his players – then he throws in a style. Everton last season were viewed as a team which played really attractive football but the players were under no illusions about the demands on them and I think if you looked at the stats you’ll have seen they were also one of the hardest-working teams.”
Stubbs was asked if he could take the credit for the emergence of so many good young Evertonians, Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman among them. Coleman, he said, was a raw lad who “didn’t know what he was going to do next” and so needed coaching. He was very close to Barkley, worked with him for four years, but insisted: “I’m not going to blow my own trumpet here. If it wasn’t me it would have been another coach. He was special.”
And so Stubbs continued with his low-key address. Yes, he’d been fortunate to learn from good managers – Martinez, O’Neill, David Moyes. But quiet determination was also in evidence. He wouldn’t be copying these guys, he said. “You’re going to see Alan Stubbs’ style of management and it’s important I stamp my identity on Hibs as an Alan Stubbs team.” Were Hibs a more attractive proposition to him for being in the Championship, a league they’d be trying to win? No, they were attractive enough anyway. Were Rangers favourites? If it was down to budgets, yes, but he’d been around the block and football didn’t always work like that. Did he know he was taking over a club with a “soft” reputation?
Last season was nothing to do with him, he said. “What happened, happened. But when we go again we know we’ll have to instill a confidence in the players who were part of it because going down would have had a negative effect. They’ll quickly have to gain my trust and I theirs.
“I’ve got a great opportunity here to be successful. My ambition to be a successful manager is greater than it was as a player. This is a new chapter for me.” So would it have a happy ending, a Hibs title? Stubbs may have posed for daft photos but he wasn’t going to say anything which might rebound horribly. “The Championship is going to be an exciting league, probably more exciting than the Premiership. The ambition is to get up as quickly as possible.”