Aidan Smith: What sort of manager do you prefer?
Time for Heroes is the story of how Hibs smashed their 114-year-old hoodoo and at the screening at the Vue Cinema at Leith’s Ocean Terminal on Tuesday I can confidently predict one thing: the first time Alan Stubbs appears the hall will burst into applause. Though it’s not really appropriate cineaste behaviour, there may even be chants of “Stubbsy, Stubbsy”.
This would have happened anyway, I reckon, but it’s guaranteed by last week’s news from darkest Rotherham that the man who guided Hibs to a prize that many feared was beyond them had lost his job in England’s Championship. There is huge sympathy for Stubbs in Leith. Even among those who were baffled by his choice of club for his next move. They didn’t understand it. Easter Road with its glittering cup was the centre of the universe as far as they were concerned. Why was he swapping a club with a Famous Five Stand for one with a KCM Recycling Stand? This was the Hibee triumphalist viewpoint but these fans wished him well anyway. Now he’s out of work and you’d be hard-pushed to find a better example of how fleeting success in football can be.
But what is surprising many back at Hibs is the portrait painted of their old boss by those following Rotherham United’s fortunes, and their frustration with him as their team kept losing. One report affirmed that Stubbs had been sacked not just because Rotherham had only won one of their 14 games under him and were five points adrift at the foot of the second tier, but because he’d “alienated the fans”.
How had he done this?
By “hardly ever” acknowledging them. Only twice did this observer of Rotherham’s plummeting fortunes see Stubbs applaud the support from the touchline. The manager “remained remote” in the dugout or technical area as the team struggled. Away to Brighton is a 452-mile round trip. On a Tuesday night 248 fans made the journey and yet Stubbs didn’t feel like walking “half a pitch” to thank them.
Hibs fans got used to Stubbs staying in his seat, cup of coffee in hand. They didn’t need to see him jumping up and down on the side the pitch. They sang his name every game but didn’t then wait for him to wave back or pump a fist, so that they could then cheer, as if part of some mutual admiration society.
There are plenty of managers who will pump fists (and some who will jab their opposite numbers in the eye, hurl c-word abuse at them and headbutt passing players). Stubbs isn’t a demonstrative manager; Hibs fans liked that. He brought serenity and a touch of class to the job.
Now, that’s an easy thing to say when your team have just pulled off a victory for the ages. If Hibs hadn’t won the cup, if Stubbs had stayed at Easter Road and presided over those recent sticky games when winning positions were continually surrendered, maybe some fans would have got frustrated with the laid-back approach.
But I honestly believe that Stubbs was the kind of manager Hibs wanted and needed, and that Rotherham clearly wanted a different kind.
Stubbs was last week described as the “polar opposite” of previous bosses there, including Neil Warnock and Steve Evans. “Rotherham fans are used to seeing hearts on sleeves,” continued the glum verdict.
Look at Stubbs’ main rival bosses last season: Rangers’ Mark Warburton paced the technical area like an expectant father asked by his wife to wait outside the maternity ward because his jitteriness was irritating her. Meanwhile, those who witnessed Peter Houston – a bald, middle-aged man who favours a shell-suit – perform a Gangnam-style dance after his Falkirk team grabbed a stoppage-time draw at Easter Road won’t ever forget it. Everyone’s different and no mistake.
Stubbs didn’t think himself superior to excitable managers but he wondered why they jumped around. I met him in Liverpool in the summer before the season had begun for Rotherham to talk about his time at Hibs for a book on the cup triumph. “A manager’s work is done Monday to Friday,” he told me. “There’s not much that can be changed on matchdays. A lot of the jumping around is done for effect. If a manager is waving his arms about and hurling insults does he really think that’s going to make a player perform better?”
There are two schools of thought here: changes can be effected mid-match and the bosses who believe this will do what it takes to make them happen. Or the other view that once the players step over the white line they’re on their own. There hasn’t been conclusive proof that one approach works best.
No greater Hibs manager than Eddie Turnbull, pictured left, used to watch games from his seat in the director’s box. As far I know there was no phone contact with his assistant Wilson Humphries down on the bench. What would Ned have made of today’s highly conspicuous managers, the skinny-suited ones, the ones who shouldn’t be wearing skinny suits because they burst the trousers, the managers killed by umbrellas (not literally, but when hoisting a brolly was perceived as a sign of weakness), the ones who now stand in the rain showing how tough they are – all the ones who indulge in gesture politics? Not much, I reckon.
We are constantly told that football is a more sophisticated, scientific game now so why is it that fans – or some of them – expect and need to see managers indulge in such simplistic theatre? In the analysis of Stubbs’ failure in South Yorkshire there’s confusion over Stubbs’ understatedness. Why, at the climax of Hibs’ great day, did he don a scarf as if it had suddenly turned chilly? That’s a matter of interpretation. The long-suffering of Leith, with their eyes, only saw a man showing them the cup and silently saying: “This is for you.”