Yogi's bairn to run in the SPL

FALKIRK fans may be salivating at the thought of visiting Parkhead and Ibrox next season - but for manager John Hughes a certain stadium in Leith will hold just as much appeal.

Next season's SPL fixture list may still be in the pipeline and while the Bairns boss will relish the forthcoming clashes with the Old Firm, the former Hibs favourite is already eyeing an emotional return to Easter Road.

Recently voted the Bell's First Division Manager of the Year after his players blazed a glorious trail into the top flight, Hughes can't wait to test himself against the best.

And pitting his wits against the Hibees' Tony Mowbray holds particular appeal. The pair were team-mates for a brief period at Celtic in the mid-1990s and although they spent just two months together in the famous green and white hoops, the Englishman made a lasting impression.

Mowbray, signed by Celtic in November 1991 for 1million from Middlesbrough, was coming to the end of his Parkhead career when Hughes arrived in the east of Glasgow in August 1995 following a 380,000 switch from Falkirk. A matter of weeks later, though, and Ipswich had lured Mowbray back south of the Border.

Despite having barely had to time to get know each other, Hughes will always remember how his fellow-centre half helped him settle into the Celtic first team, even though his arrival meant the writing was on the wall for Mowbray's own future.

"Tony has done a fantastic job at Hibs and is someone I admire," he said.

"He was centre half at Celtic when I signed and I basically took the jersey from him as he was moving on to pastures new.

"But what a great human being the man is. Despite me being the new kid on the block and him knowing I was possibly there to take his place, he took me under his wing and was always wanting to give me words of advice and make sure I was okay.

"That meant a lot to me and I really did appreciate everything he did for me. I suppose we are similar in that we appreciate guys who give everything. I had a lot of time for the way Tommy Burns went about his business at Celtic - as I did for Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown - and I'd be interested to know how much Tony took from Tommy."

Having seen the Hibees' ill-fated brush with the Intertoto Cup come shuddering to a halt against Lithuanian unknowns FK Vetra, Hughes admits he feared the worst for his old pal.

Since then, though, Mowbray has engineered a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of Hibs, much to the admiration of Hughes.

"I saw them in the Intertoto Cup last season and thought they were going to be in for a hard year but there has been a remarkable turnaround since then," he said.

"For all that he has achieved, though, I'm desperate to put one over him.

"Of course I am looking forward to going back to Easter Road as a manager as I was born and bred in Leith. But there will be nobody more determined than me to go there and pick up the three points every time we play Hibs.

"I want to turn them over so I can walk through Leith with my head held high. And it will be the same when we face Hearts.

"My fight is not against Rangers and Celtic, although I would like to think we can compete against them. My fight is with the others and I'll demand my players give me their very best. The guys will be left in no doubt what is required. We can't win every game but all I can ask is that teams know they have been in a battle after coming to Falkirk."

There will be no prouder man on the opening day of the new season as Hughes leads his Bairns into SPL battle for the first time.

While the newcomers will be most people's favourites for a return ticket to the First Division, the 40-year-old is adamant Falkirk are in it for the long haul. "I will be proud and honoured to lead the guys out in the SPL but we're keeping our feet on the ground," he said.

"We'll be coming up against better coaches and better players and it is going to be a hard, hard battle.

"The aim is to stay in the SPL and we'll need everyone pulling in the same direction and the fans right behind us, win lose or draw. I am not going to heap pressure on them but I want us to prove people wrong. Individually that's how you get on in the game and if I can have them doing it collectively we will be okay.

"Talk is cheap, though, and we'll have to go out and do it.

"I expect my players to come in after their holidays and really have a bit about them as we get ready for the new season. The footballs will be out on the first day as that's the way I do things."

Being looked upon as relegation favourites will suit Hughes, who insists belief is the key to survival for his team.

"We will be regarded as the whipping boys as we'll be considered the underdogs by most people but that's fine by me," he said. "First and foremost they have to have self belief as well as a collective belief. They will have to be disciplined, cool and calculated and not run around like headless chickens."

As one well-documented television 'out take' during an interview with Maurice Johnston demonstrated, no-one likes a laugh and a joke more than 'Yogi' on the training ground.

However, there's no doubting his serious approach to the challenge ahead.

He said: "I have worked under some great managers but I will do it in my own style.

"Sometimes I will do it with a laugh and a smile but the players know not to cross me.

"There is that respect but they still come to work and enjoy themselves.

"I know where I want to go as a manager and as a football club and I have guys here who share that belief."