There are standard lines that a manager offers up about a fondly-regarded maverick previously under his charge – ones that you thought Alan Stubbs could not deliver about Jason Cummings yesterday.
The Hibernian striker’s reputation for being more than a little off-the-wall was enhanced by video footage of him jumping off tables at the club’s training ground canteen in a mock bout with Scottish wrestler Grado. Four days before the club’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Aberdeen, the actions of the 21-year-old striker hardly smacked (down?) of a head-screwed-on professional.
Yet Stubbs, who last May led the club to their first success for 114 years in Scotland’s oldest football tournament, maintained that the striker who blossomed under him – with the odd blip – was “starting to mature and grow up a bit”.
Indeed, Stubbs sees the latest larking of Cummings, or “Cumdog” to give him the wrestler name scrawled across his chest in the Grado bout, only in a favourable light.
“I’m all for that. I think it is great,” said the Englishman. “It gives you a marker of the team spirit among everybody. You saw the number of people involved in the canteen, in terms of the players, so it gives you a really good indicator of how close they are. I know how close they are, they are a great bunch.
“Jason’s a great lad. He was exactly the same when we were there. He’s brilliant for the dressing room. Sometimes you have to curtail it a little bit. He’s been in the gym recently! You need that, I think him being the type of person he is you don’t want to take that off him either.
“You have to sometimes turn a blind eye to it. But sometimes he needs help as well just to guide him along the right way. He’s made a couple of decisions in the past which are regrettable, got himself caught up in unsavoury incidents, but I think now he’s starting to mature and grow up a little bit.
“He’s got his own apartment now. He’s got himself a girlfriend, he’s got his dog, and it’s all part of finding out who you are, and I think he’s doing that. He’s done a lot of talking on the pitch and that is what we all want to keep reading about, what Jason’s doing on the pitch.
“He’s quite intelligent when you are having a one-to-one conversation, he’s not one of those you think it is going in one ear and out the other. He understands and has an opinion and he wants to learn. That is the biggest thing I’ve found about him: he wants to learn, and be as good as he can be. And if he does that who knows where he is going to be?”
The 21 goals plundered by Cummings this season have come in fewer appearances than the 25 he netted last term because Stubbs’ successor, Neil Lennon, has on occasion brought the player into line by daring to drop him to the bench.
“My kick up the backside was when I’d bring him into the office and speak to him,” said Stubbs, who believes Cummings’ predatory instincts make him a player who can be worth “top dollar”. “We had some harsh words at times. Sometimes I was pulling my hair out with him. But the one thing was that I wanted to be there for him; I wanted to be there to help him, I didn’t want to cut him away and let him make the same mistake again.”
Stubbs concedes there was one Cummings mistake that threatened to bring the wrestler out in him, when the frontman missed a penalty in last year’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Dundee United with a fluffed chip. He later made perfect amends by stroking in the clinching penalty in a shootout but, when the first spot-kick sailed over the bar Stubbs admits he envisaged the striker taking flight.
“I didn’t just want to body slam him, I wanted to take him out. I wanted to throw him over the top ropes. It would have been a TKO.”
Despite an ill-fated move to Rotherham now judged by him to have been the “wrong decision”, Stubbs is not “wishing it was me” when he charts the past 11 months at Easter Road. He is simply “delighted” about the return to the top flight that Lennon’s team completed last weekend, ahead of the Scottish Cup semi-final.
“I couldn’t be any happier for them – Leeann [Dempster, chief executive], Rod [Petrie, chairman] George [Craig, head of football operations], Graeme Mathie [head of recruitment], all the staff.”
Stubbs, who hopes to get back into a club in the summer with “one or two things bubbling away”, is puzzled by suggestions that he was in the running for the interim manager’s job at Dundee that Neil McCann has now taken on.
“I don’t know where it came from. I was surprised when I got a text from a few journalists asking about it.”
l Alan Stubbs was speaking at the John Hartson Foundation Golf Day. The Hartson Foundation is on course to raise £1million for charities.