This immediately tells you something about him, that he’s interested in the hinterland of football people, and indeed the Manchester City manager did study engineering in his native Chile before coming into the game.
This is fascinating, but not half as fascinating as what Butcher says next, when I tell him how Pellegrini found out he’d been sacked as boss of Real Madrid while the cultured fellow was in the Reina Sofia, the Spanish capital’s national museum of 20th century art, losing himself among the Picassos and the Man Rays. “I love art,” says Butcher. “When I was in London, at Brentford, I used to go to the galleries a lot.” He can’t quite afford a Picasso but he’s delighted with the seascape showing the tiny island of Fidra given him by his wife Rita for his 55th birthday recently. The clump of rock in the Firth of Forth is a constant on the Butchers’ regular coastal walk with their dog which usually finishes at Gullane’s German-run tea-shop. “Fritz the schnauzer,” he says. “He’s been walked so much I think he’s getting shorter, if that was possible.”
This is not an accusation you could level at Butcher, who still cuts an impressive figure, though obviously not quite so blood-spattered and googly-eyed as in his most famous portrayal. A bicycling club of self-made men raised pints to him as he entered the bar; our man post-training opts for tea.
“If you could be an artist, which one would it be?” he asks, removing his TB-initialled top. I um and ah for a bit, not expecting this at all, and play for time by suggesting his Hibernian players would be similarly stumped. “No no,” he scolds, “you can’t say that all footballers are thick – and you still haven’t told me who you’d be.” Crikey, I don’t know, who would he be? “Turner, because he painted the sea so much. The sea is very important to me; I have to be near it. I grew up in Lowestoft. My parents still live on the Suffolk coast, as do Rita’s, and we’ve already bought the house in a village called Bawdsey where we’re going to retire.”
But not yet. He’s got a job to do at Hibs – a big, exciting job. “My old chairman at Inverness reckoned the only club I’d have left Caley Thistle for would have been Ipswich Town. They’re dear to me, it’s true, but maybe in a Scottish sense you’d have factored in Rangers as well, for obvious reasons. When the Hibs job came up, though, I just went: ‘Wow.’ I always looked at them and thought they only needed the right person to get them going because everything else was in place.”
Is Butcher the right person? The fans, those Scottish Cup obsessionists, have got to hope so. The latest quest for the holey pail resumes against Raith Rovers today and I’m wondering what will be in his team-talk, not least because we’re still discussing art and how it could help an anxious dressing-room, calming it down then lifting it up. Balloons, feathers and dogs have all done this for Butcher in the past.
“It might be I could ask the players the ‘Which artist … ?’ question. ‘What kind of painting best sums up your character?’ Maybe it would be bold strokes, demure watercolours, something more abstract or even Andy Warhol-style – I remember seeing his big exhibition in London. Footballers are clever boys. They’re required to live in this bubble and adapt as best they can while coping with so much stuff – the fans, the press, Twitter. As a manager you could go quite deep with them here. ‘If I gave you a brush what would you paint?’” Butcher is enjoying this and right now he’s more like Jackson Pollock than Turner, flinging dollops of motivational goo everywhere. “You probably think this is rehearsed, but you mentioned art, not me. Maybe the last thing I’d say to my team would be: ‘There’s a blank canvas waiting for you out there, lads – go and paint.’ Now, be honest, do you not feel a little bit motivated? … ”
Still with us, Hibs fans? You’re probably wresting with an image of bullet-headed striker James Collins in a smock, mixing oils of cerise and mauve. You’re probably thinking that Pollock, Turner and Ray sound like a useful midfield trio but are wondering who’s going to win the ball. And you might be asking: how did such an uncomplicated, rugged, heart-of-oak, stout yeoman of a defender turn into the kind of manager that the tabloids, in their affectionate way, label “bonkers” and “a nutter”? Well, to you I would say: this club have tried just about everything else, including guys who neither talked a good game or as it turned out played one. Why not Big Tel?
Really, I shouldn’t have been thrown by Butcher’s cultural curveball, having previously watched a video of his powerpoint presentation to a conference of business types. Break the routine, he told them, do the unexpected, make it fun. The theme of his talk, with only the vaguest whiff of David Brent, was leadership. “Managers do things right, leaders do the right thing.” He convinced his audience that Adolf Hitler (war hero, non-smoker, monogamous) was a better leader than Teddy Roosevelt (two mistresses, ten martinis a day) and Winston Churchill (arrogant, opium-user, slept until lunchtime) before revealing their identities. But the delegates were left with the impression that the display of leadership that impressed Butcher the most was his eldest son Christopher, an army captain, going first into danger in Afghanistan, “an experience he hadn’t told his mother about and never would”.
Before a game against Celtic Butcher got his Inverness team to blow up balloons and place them on their laps. “Some were big and long, which caused hilarity. I asked them to shift all the doubts, fears and worries from their minds into the balloons and then burst them. Some couldn’t pop them, which caused even more hilarity, but then the tension lifted. They went out and won 3-2. Another time I handed out feathers. They can signify cowardice but I got the guys to think about how, among the North American Indians, they mean the bravest of the brave. Some put them in their socks, others their jockstraps.” ICT won that day, too, and how tickled Butcher must have been by that.
“Which dog … ?” was the ICT variation on the artist question.. “I went first and opted for labrador: faithful, strong, honest, no real frills, muck and nettles, gets stuck in. Andy Shinnie [now at Birmingham City] chose a shitsu and Graeme Shinnie a Jack Russell. There were boxers, spaniels, lots of working dogs, even some poodles. It was a great laugh.” Poodles? Surely Hibs in recent times have been much more of a poodley team than Caley-Thistle? Butcher smiles. “When Hibs came up to Inverness during my time there I hoped it would be windy, rainy, cold and horrible. We were used to the weather; they didn’t fancy it. They seemed to have a block about coming to the Highlands. We just got stuck in.” Like 11 labradors, in fact.
The dog days have yet to come to Easter Road. “I don’t think Hibs are quite ready for this kind of stuff. Some of the guys are still worried about the games and how they’re going to play. They don’t know me well enough yet so they’re a bit afraid to say anything.” Right away, he detected a hangover still lingering from those crushing defeats by Hearts and Malmo (5-1 and 7-0) so David Yeoman, the mind guru he used at Inverness, is trying to “clear their timelines”. As yet, there’s no word on this service being made available to the tormented fans.
Do his new charges find him intimidating? He laughs. “I guess, but the one they should be worried about is Maurice [Malpas, No 2] who by the way I rate as the best coach in Scotland. I’m not concerned [about the players’ reticence]. It’ll take time to build up the trust but we’ll get there.”
Butcher says if he could do the entire team-talk about something other than the game, not mentioning it at all, then he would. This interview is rather going the same way, for when I ask about player discipline, a Hibs problem in recent times, he says the needful – “Step out of line and you step out of the team” – but moments later we’re discussing Deep Purple. “In my playing days there was something wrong if you weren’t in the pub by six. Ian Gillan, Purple’s lead singer, was a good friend of Paul Mariner and he’d sometimes join us. His party-piece was setting fire to the sporty paper, the Green ’Un, as you were reading it.”
Heavy-metal aficionado Butcher – Iron Maiden and Saxon are his favourites, but he also has a soft spot for Matt Munro – reckons his destiny was sealed in an ironmonger’s. He was just a Lowestoft boy when Alf Ramsey – “of Ipswich and England” – walked in. After securing his autograph, he was desperate to be a footballer, although as a youth he had to be seriously toughened up by Bobby Ferguson, predecessor to Bobby Robson. “One crazy run down the wing I caught three lads with block-tackles, leaving them on the ground. I said sorry to each in turn as I trotted back. Bobby went mental: ‘Never apologise,’ he said. ‘You should have bloody walked over them.’” Butcher might therefore sympathise with Hibs, perceived as being a soft touch, but he’ll almost certainly change that culture.
The stats of Butcher’s career include one stint in an actual butcher’s, 77 England caps, three World Cups, twice skinned by Diego Maradona in the same mazy dribble - and three times sacked as a manager. He probably doesn’t qualify as one of the game’s most promising young bosses anymore and when I ask about ambition he again mentions retirement. But then he says: “If I can get it right at Hibs, and I have every confidence I will, then I’ll be ecstatic.” He’s already looking forward to the summer when he can properly shape his own team. “I’d love to bring a name to the club. I want them to be stable top three, if not top two. The Scottish Cup’s been mentioned a lot already. Some brilliant managers here never won it. I never won it with Rangers, or the FA Cup with Ipswich. There’s probably too much of an obsession with it at Hibs but I can’t prevent that. All I can do is my darnedest to make this a strong, strong club again. And, yes of course, do everything possible to win it.”
He doesn’t just talk about football but I like that about him, and hopefully you still get an idea of what kind of football manager he is. The hardest job he’s ever done, he says, was running that hotel in Bridge of Allan. “Football’s not hard compared to the service industry, and footballers aren’t prima donnas next to bloody star chefs.” There were some Fawltyesque moments but it was during that time-out from football that he discovered North Berwick. “Friends here invited us over every Christmas. My boys loved the ceilidhs and it’s only coming out now how much booze they used to stash away at a young age!”
Butcher talks often and warmly about his family, how Rita didn’t know the young footballer when she met him in a pub and how her mother thought the game was “just a passing fancy” for him. “Rita and I have been married for 34 years now – she’s been fantastic for me.” Sons Edward and Alastair both work at Southampton Solent University but Christopher, currently stationed in Germany, is causing his father some concern. “Unfortunately Chris is not in a good way right now. When he told me about going into that compound in Afghanistan, feeling the bullets pinging off his helmet, well … ” Butcher composes himself says he couldn’t be prouder of his son, that his bravery puts going back onto a football pitch in a bloodied headband into perspective. And suddenly he’s riffing again, this time about history and great battles: “Rorke’s Drift, Thermopylae – I love reading about victories against all the odds.”
This weekend, for the rugby, the English will be all over the place but one of Scotland’s favourite Englishman has been installed here for a while. Any doubt about who he wants to win the Calcutta Cup? “Course not, I’m English!” How will he vote in the referendum? “I’m a Tory – that should answer it!” But while Scotland may not be where he thought he’d end up, Butcher loves it here. “There’s an honesty to Scottish football that’s spread right round the players, the coaches and the fans. England is more fractious with more backbiting, more glory-hunting and more nastiness.”
He won’t be here for ever though, and the Easter Road support have got to hope it will be just long enough, there being no truth in the rumour they’d have Hitler if they thought he’d win them what they so desperately crave.