It’s early in his return to Scottish football to be retracing steps but this is what new Hibs manager Jack Ross is set to do this evening at St Mirren.
As he says himself, it’s a ground he probably knows better than Easter Road at present. Of all the venues in Scottish football, other than his current place of work, what is now known as the Simple Digital Arena might well be the place that means most to him. It’s where he established himself as a manager of worth and won his maiden honour.
And it’s where he once memorably waded into the crowd to reason with an unhappy season-ticket holder following a 3-0 defeat to Queen of the South in January 2017. The result left St Mirren rooted to the bottom of the Championship.
Even though Ross was careful to keep his composure throughout the exchange, the incident, which was captured on film, still prompted fears a promising managerial career was about to be cut short.
In these cut-throat times, with Ross himself a recent victim after being quickly ejected from Sunderland, he is now extremely grateful for the patience shown by the St Mirren board. It’s too convenient to claim the debate with the supporter was a turning point. It did, however, coincide with a run of form that saw St Mirren secure their Championship status with a 1-1 draw at Easter Road of all places on the last day of the season.
“For me as a manager, (St Mirren) was a huge part of my learning process,” recalled Ross. “It helped me get the opportunities since – to manage a club the size of Sunderland and the opportunity to manage a club the size of Hibs.
“Everything we went through there, the more difficult times and the more enjoyable times, were really important for me.
“I spoke earlier about the demands for change. I lost my first six league games at St Mirren and there wasn’t that change. So, I’ll always be grateful in terms of having that opportunity to come through that period. For a young manager, that was not easy. It could have ended my management career quite quickly as well.”
As for that individual supporter, he may well hear from him again tonight. Although Ross has since sat in the away dugout, for a game that formed part of the deal with Sunderland, this will be his first competitive match as opposition manager since departing St Mirren following the Championship title win in 2018. His arch critic was no doubt among those cheering him then.
“It’s possible I saw him in hospitality later on in the season, or the following season,” said Ross. “I am sure he still goes. He will probably give me stick tomorrow! It was one of those things I certainly did not pre-plan and I do not envisage doing it again. It felt alright doing it at the time and anyone who heard me that day will know it was fine, there was nothing sinister behind it in any way. It was just a bit different. Hopefully I will not repeat it ever again.”
Hibs have the chance to move to just three points behind fifth placed Kilmarnock, who they then face this weekend. They have not lost a league game since being beaten by Hearts in September, with the seven-game run including five successive draws under Paul Heckingbottom. Ross is the first to admit he’s not done much, indeed has not had time to do much, since coming in, except tinker with formation slightly.
Playing Flo Kamberi and Christian Doidge together up front is reaping dividends, something interim manager Eddie May, pictured, decided to try prior to the 4-1 win over St Johnstone. You get asked quite a lot as a manager do you have your own specific ideology about the game and what system should be played,” said Ross. “I am probably the opposite of that. I come in, see what I have got and try and figure out the best way to get the best from them. There is no right or wrong approach. At the moment it suits the players we have, it is not set in stone. For the moment it has worked well for us.
“There’s so much debate now about any system, any formation and tactics and a lot of it can be excessive,” he added.
“At the moment I have two strikers in Christian and Flo playing well and contributing in terms of goals. If they continue in that vein it makes it quite easy for me.”