Interview: John Hughes on why Leigh Griffiths’ plight ‘flicks a switch’ for him

John Hughes at Newhaven harbour. Picture: Ian Georgeson
John Hughes at Newhaven harbour. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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I n Newhaven these days there are probably just as many people – incomers to the old fishing port – who will put the emphasis on the first syllable of the name rather than the second, which is the traditional way, and some of them may be lunching at the 
waterfront bistro where I’m chatting to John Hughes.

Yogi doesn’t mind bistros because he doesn’t mind change. He particularly doesn’t mind change in football and would hate to think anyone believed he was some kind of stick-in-the-primordial-mud type, a King Canute of the Forth estuary. “I move with the times, I’m into all the new trends and what’s coming up,” he insists. But one thing your correspondent reckons he can say with some certainty is that this is the only guy here, today or on many other days, in this smart eaterie or out for a stroll 
where the luxury cruise liners disgorge their passengers, who ever swam, larked about and pulled daredevil stunts in the harbour as a boy.

“Sophisticated managers, aye there are some of them around,” he says, continuing
the theme of perception and the kind of boss some might reckon Yogi to be. “And they may have gone to university and been educated. Great for them. But I will sit anybody down here and be able to have a chat with them because my degree’s in football. Let’s get Pep Guardiola along and him and me will talk. He can explain his philosophy and I’ll explain mine.”

The great Pep, coach of his generation, in New-haven not New-haven? In the spirit of Mad magazine that would be one of those Sights We’d Like to See. But we’ll just have to make do with Hughes, now 54, and his yarns – some funny and some heartbreakingly sad. The tales of rascally lads who’ve passed through Hibernian, himself included plus Anthony Stokes, Derek Riordan and most poignantly right now, Leigh Griffiths. And the burning desire within him to get back into management.

Tomorrow at Easter Road Hibs entertain Celtic, two clubs dear to both Hughes and Griffiths. Unfortunately Yogi will not be able to glimpse the continued excellent progress of Ryan Christie in the Hoops – “I never doubted Ryan would make it at 
Parkhead,” he says of his former player at Inverness Caley Thistle who sustained a nasty looking injury against Salzburg on Thursday night, “and I might have played a tiny wee part in his development” – and he’ll also be denied a sight of Griffiths, a troubled man taking time out from football to deal with urgent personal issues.

Griffiths’ plight prompts much reflectiveness from Hughes: “I signed Sparky for Falkirk when he was 15. I was tipped off about this amazing kid at Leith Athletic and went down to watch him. He fought with a team-mate, grabbed a corner flag and ran after him and ended up being sent off. I thought: ‘He’ll do me!’ What’s happened to him flicks a switch for me, coming from Leith, growing up in the scheme culture and the gang culture, ducking and diving, getting up to all sorts but then losing Peter.”

Peter was Hughes’ elder brother who died of a drug overdose, a victim of the heroin epidemic which hit Leith just along the water from here during the 1980s. “There’s lots of stuff which can trip you up as a youngster,” he continues. “My twin daughters are 17, they’re coming through, and I’m trying to guide them. That stuff really interests me, it always has: how you bring along kids and nurture their talent. That’s what should happen but I worry we just end up battering folk.

“No one talked about mental health in my day. I’m from a real working-class background, my dad was a docker as were all my uncles. Nobody went near feelings, the emotional stuff, so I think it’s a really strong and heroic thing for anyone to come out and speak about them now.”

Hughes says he cherishes an image of Griffiths passed to him by his good friend John Collins when the latter was assistant manager at Celtic: “After training proper was over John said Sparky would grab a bag of balls and just shoot, whip and chip the rest of the day. John said it was magnificent, and that Sparky’s face was a picture of glee. So, those 40 goals in a season, that fantastic double against England, the great days, I’m remembering them and saying: ‘Come on, Sparky, you can get back there.’”

Hughes was so keen to come to my neck of the woods for this chat that I wondered if he was simply desperate to get out of the house, and I may not be wrong in this assessment. “The paintbrushes have started to appear,” he groans. “My wife Bev reckons there’s a couple of paint jobs needing done. ‘I’m going to have to fit them in somehow,’ she’ll say. This is her sneaky psychology. I’m a painter-and-decorator to trade and she’s hoping I’ll go: ‘Ach, I’ll do them.’”

But he insists he’s not the type of out-of-work boss who gets under the good lady’s feet. He’s always golfing and cycling and always with Collins, although not so much just recently because of his bad back. On the course Hughes would regularly scoop the wagers. “I’m used to John being my cash machine,” he laughs. And he’s really missing the two wheels for doing as much for the soul and the spirit as the body. “I was in the bike shop the other day to see if an adjustment can be made so I can still ride without it being so painful and I’m pinning my hopes on a different kind of fork. I live in Port Seton and until I had to stop was doing 40 miles a day, North Berwick and back, four or fives times a week, then coming into Edinburgh at weekends, twice round Arthur’s Seat and a stop for a coffee before heading to the cemetery next to Easter Road where Peter is buried between my mum and dad. I want that ritual back and to get cycling again so I can kick his gravestone five times for luck.”

Hughes was manager of Falkirk, Hibs, Livingston and Hartlepool United before the terrific high of Scottish Cup glory with Caley Thistle was followed by the crashing low of relegation to the third tier with Raith Rovers, his last job 17 months ago. That setback has not caused the bold Yogi to suddenly become shy or self-conscious about where he goes from here. Far from it. At various times in the afternoon he will tell me he wants to manage Celtic, Hibs again and Scotland.

So what went wrong at Stark’s Park? Well, the team hadn’t won for four months before he arrived, the hottest shot had been loaned to Dumbarton, the best player was crocked the whole time, the keeper crisis was such that an outfield man had to go in goals and there was a 
divided boardroom. Otherwise everything was brilliant.

Nevertheless: “I was the manager so I have to take the blame,” he says. “I didn’t do my due diligence. If I’d known what it would be like there I’d never have gone.” He called a team meeting: “I asked: ‘Who’s my top goalscorer?’ A hand went up. ‘How many have you got? Oh, four. I see … ’” He struggled with the cramped training facilities but despite all the problems he says Raith should never have lost the play-off against Brechin City. He winces at the memory of a black comedy moment of two Rovers men standing over an imaginary ball long since shifted upfield for a Brechin goal, their squabble about who should take a free-kick horribly futile. But the buck stopped with him. “My philosophy and my style of football just weren’t suited to Raith.”

In the grim aftermath that philosophy was subjected to fierce scrutiny. A post-match interview from an earlier defeat where he’d accused the players of not caring enough about the club’s fate was viewed by some as evidence that Hughes was somehow less scientific, less sophisticated and more old-school than other managers. But since when was Scottish football the Bullingdon Club or the Algonquin Round Table or, really, the Brains Trust? “One or two journalists tried to do me in, I thought they were quite naughty. But I didn’t go after them. I’m man enough to say that I carry the can for relegation.” Hughes cannot help where he’s from, the accent it’s given him, the tough upbringing. He’s never hid from these things and indeed regards them as positives.

Pranks from his playing days have tended to endure, such as the streaking in front of the TV cameras at Falkirk and tipping a pint glass over Hibs supremo Rod Petrie. But only one of them actually happened. “I would never waste beer,” he chuckles. Because he was a rummle-them-up centre-half the sceptical anticipated that his teams, when he became a manager, would be uncouth; they weren’t. His Hibs side were free-flowing, perhaps too much so in a spectacular 6-6 draw at Motherwell, and his ICT didn’t exploit the Highland gusts, keeping the ball on the deck more than in Terry Butcher’s era. “I’m a passionate guy but I’m not a bawler and shouter,” he insists, “and I’m into the beautiful game.”

Hughes’ inspiration, as a player and now a manager, was Peter. “If I was competing for a high ball, or there was a situation on the ground where I knew the boots would be flying, I would always think of him and give that little extra. He’s why I’m still not finished with football.

“Peter was two years older, a wonderful player, right and left foot and far better than me. Our dad would take him for a trial at [notable Edinburgh boys’ club] Salvesen and he’d score a hat-trick but not go back the next week. That sort of thing happened a few times. He just didn’t have the focus. Football could have saved him and he would still be here with us. But he just drifted and got in tow with the wrong crowd. What happened to him with the heroin killed our mum too. I remember him trying to go cold turkey and she died of a broken heart.”

Hughes mentions the classic Jimmy 
Cagney film Angels With Dirty Faces which 
confers great good fortune on the street urchin successfully fleeing the scene of some juvenile delinquency while his pal who gets caught grows up to become a gangster.

“I had a few ‘There but for the grace of God’ moments,” he says. “One time Peter and I got chucked in a cell for fighting in the street.” The Leith police wouldn’t dismisseth them. “When our mum arrived at the station she got into cahoots with the desk sergeant and told him to keep us locked up for a couple of hours to make us sweat!”

Hughes was determined he’d have the commitment his brother lacked, even after contemporaries such as John Robertson, Keith Wright and Paul Kane all won contracts with clubs and he didn’t, sending him up a ladder with a paintbrush. “Football was my saving grace,” he says, Arbroath giving him his first opportunity. That’s not what Wikipedia says, I tell him. “I know and I’m disappointed about that because I recently enjoyed a great reunion with those boys. I used to turn up at the foot of Leith Walk at the end of my shift covered in paint for a lift up to training and not get back until near midnight. Graham Shaw was our designated driver in a brown Cortina with a broken heater. He had that Tom Selleck moustache, dead suave, but we knew him as ‘Tattie’.”

Something else you might not know about John “Yogi” Hughes: he’s never met the other John “Yogi” Hughes, Celtic legend, despite having played in the Hoops for a season. That shirt can weigh heavy but didn’t on these brawny shoulders. “[Manager] Tommy Burns told me: ‘You’re here to be John Hughes. You can’t do what Paolo Di Canio does but he can’t do what you do.’” Then at 32 when dreams usually get more elusive for footballers he signed for Hibs.

Nothing would have made him happier as Easter Road manager than to bring the Scottish Cup back to Leith so he must have been thrilled two years ago when the old pot was finally paraded down the Walk. “I didn’t go to Hampden because I thought I would be a jinx,” he says. “But of course I was over the moon and what a game my boy Stokes had.” It was Hughes who got the wayward striker’s career up and running at Falkirk during a loan spell from Arsenal. “Stokesy is another flawed genius. Football came easy to him and he was so talented he thought he didn’t have to live his life properly. I remember him turning up late for a game at Dunfermline. The bus really should have left but I waited for him. He was in a state, apologising like mad, but I told him to calm down and not worry: he would be playing. I needed him, although I didn’t let him travel back with us and he had to pay for a taxi!”

Yogi has plenty more stories like that one but this is not a career that’s over. “I don’t have any bitterness,” he adds. “Every experience I’ve had in football has been great and I include Raith. There are great people in that town who don’t slip away to watch Celtic and Rangers but support the local team and I hope there can be a revival. I never got a transfer window there and yet I’m good at recruitment. To name just a few: Kasper Schmeichel, Tim Krul, Stokesy and the most talented of the lot, Russell Latapy, who was supposed to have retired only I got another seven years out of him.

“Now I’m looking for a kindred spirit in 
the game who wants me to build a project. Listen, maybe loyalty and honesty have been my failings in the past but aren’t these really strengths? If you were to speak to players I’ve had at my clubs, trust me: 95 per cent of them would say they loved it, that I stimulated them and educated them.” And provided good banter, of course. “I reckon if these guys were shipwrecked on a desert island with me they would be consoled by the fact they’d have a right good laugh. Despite what others might think I wouldn’t actually turn cannibal!”