The Hibs manager is bullish about having bucked one of the orthodoxies in preparing for Saturday’s Scottish Cup decider against St Johnstone. Not for Ross keeping his entire squad on their toes through delaying divulging who among them have made the starting XI for Hampden until the night before. Instead, way back Monday he told his players the team for the humungous encounter – which will decree whether this season becomes the club’s best since their title-winning campaign of 1951-52.
“That’s helped us prepare well for the week. That element of clarity was there for us,” he said of an unusual call. “I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way of doing things. Everybody has their own way. Circumstances will sometimes determine your ability to do so, in terms of waiting on players’ fitness. To work specifically towards games, you need to start that planning process as quickly as you can. Sometimes there are occasions where people have decisions to make later in the week, but equally there are times where you can be quite clear in your plans and know what you want to do at the weekend.”
The build-up to the bid for a second Scottish Cup success for Hibs in five years, or second in 119 years if you prefer, is one such juncture for Jack. He has no concerns that players who have failed to make the final cut will, consciously or sub-consciously, lose their edge. If this was an issue, the club would not have banked a highest placing - third - in the top flight for 16 years.
“It’s [about] the culture we create within the training ground and how players go about their business on a daily basis,” Jack said. “I have a group with a core element that I inherited - the senior players - that are brilliant professionals. Then, we’ve recruited and added and cajoled others along to have that same mentality. Subsequently, we’ve got a group where we pride ourselves on even the work players do after games. Their level of intensity and professionalism is fantastic; it’s never dipped. Also, because the players have felt so much part of what we’ve done this season, they understand their role of preparing the starters for the game. When we’re working over the course of the week, we need every single player to bring that level of intensity to it. The good thing is it’s become the norm for them. It’s amazing how behaviours can become habitual if you get it right.”
The bold move in letting players know the team so early also creates another possibility, of course - that it will leak out and become known by his St Johnstone counterpart Callum Davidison well in advance. It is a credit to his players that in this social media age of everything entering the public domain, even at this late stage that has not happened.
“I’m fairly relaxed about that. It is what it is these days,” he said. “You can only control the controllables, and that is how I prepare my team. If you start to look beyond that and start to get worried or uptight...these are things I can’t control. In terms of controls, it is how I prepare my team for the game, tactically, in terms of making sure the mindset is in the best possible place.”
He is big on mindset, the need to detach himself emotionally, home in on the specifics of Saturday’s challenge rather than dwell on its potential historical significance, have open lines of communications with his players, and all sorts of what might be termed the neuro-linguistic components. All the very stuff, in fact, that Brendan Rodgers goes a bundle on. Ross has never hidden his admiration for, and rapport with, the former Celtic manager...and, as of last Saturday, the first Leicester City manager to lift the FA Cup. Not in an uncharitable way, Ross has been perceived as a mini-me of the Irishman. The pair have been in contact in messaging each other back in forth over the past week. Ross skims over the specifics of their chats.
“I just gave him one on the day of the game [the FA Cup final] and then the other messages were all about the cup final [on Saturday]...and how to win them. Because he is good at that,” said Ross, with Rodgers boasting a 100% record across seven finals. “He’s proven himself to be an absolutely outstanding coach and manager, not just with what he achieved in Scotland with Celtic, but with what he’s gone on to do with Leicester. I was delighted for him, personally, at the weekend. I think you saw how much it meant to him. I hope I can experience that same type of feeling at the weekend.”
If he does, the target instantly will become driving forward and replicating this season’s highs. That would seem one mighty tall order when there is every possibility Kevin Nisbet, Martin Boyle, Josh Doig and Ryan Porteous could be enticed away. The final could be less the start of great things, but the end of them, then. “I genuinely haven’t thought too much about that,” he said. “One, because I have so much to think about in terms of the game. Second, I am OK with the byproduct of success being the fact you may lose players. It means that I have a team that are winning games and improving and performing well, and that’s ultimately what I should be doing. If, as a consequence of that, I have to find another way in the future of doing that again then I just have to find it. I would like to not have to solve it. But I understand there is every chance I might have to do so in the coming weeks and months.”