Alan Stubbs says that there have been times in his life when he has questioned the existence of God, but on 21 May, 2016, as the Hibs fans hailed the chief for putting sunshine on Leith, he had cause to revise his thinking.
As the man who had been charged with guiding the Easter Road side to Hampden and ending the 114-year wait for a Scottish Cup triumph, he had long since been made aware of the desperation, while in the months since there have been countless tales of people who got to witness it in their darkest days.
One of those was Shaun McKinley, who received a visit from Stubbs ahead of the cup final and who inspired the manager to ultimately sell his winner’s medal to the club so that the proceeds could be donated to charity.
McKinley lost his battle with cancer and passed away on Hogmanay, a burst of applause in his memory reverberating around Easter Road in the 34th minute of Friday night’s win over Dundee United. But the only comfort for Stubbs, who fought cancer himself as a young man, is that he was able to help deliver the elusive trophy win first.
“I went to see him. I just went along by myself one night, turned up without him knowing. I just went in and sat down with him. It’s not an easy thing to do, speaking to someone who is terminally ill. We didn’t know how long he had left and he had a young child who was just two years old, I think.
“He was completely overjoyed to see me and surprised that I’m sitting there and I’m thinking ‘this is not what life is supposed to be like’. It was heart-warming for me because I was trying to talk and share our situation. But always in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘how long has he got to live?’
“We chatted about his experiences, the treatment he was going through. He was wired up to a machine that was constantly there and I don’t think anybody would want to see someone in a position like that. Sometimes you wonder if there is a god. Sometimes it makes you think stupid things. But on the flip side of that, maybe He made him witness the cup final as one of his dying memories and he went having witnessed that. Although that’s no comfort to his family…”
That day in May is one that many Hibs fans will feed off, emotionally, for a long time but Stubbs still regrets the fact that the players and staff were not able to share the Hampden high more closely with supporters after a pitch invasion at the final whistle prevented them enjoying a lap of honour or prolonged celebrations within the arena.
Back in the national stadium to promote Hibs’ defence of the trophy and the fourth-round tie against junior side Bonnyrigg Rose, which will be played at Tynecastle on 21 January, he says the pared down trophy presentation and corralled jubilation against a backdrop of security and police horses, was the only disappointment.
“It was a minority that spoiled it for the vast majority of fans who were there. Everyone would say that shouldn’t have happened but anyone with a bit of romance for the cup and the history of that club could understand, in the right way, why it happened.
“I would have liked to do [the lap of honour]. From a photo and memory point of view it would have been good for the players, the staff and the fans. But when I look back now it’s still a very proud moment. I regret what happened but I can’t regret the day. The day was memorable.
“What we achieved was not lost on ourselves and will never be lost. It’s now there in the history books. If you ever want to be reminded of it you can look at some of the photos of the Sunday and reminisce.
“When you have won something as momentous, I don’t think anything can tarnish it. It’s still a fantastic achievement. What happened in the aftermath was unfortunate – I don’t think anybody who has just won it would have wanted it to be that way. I wish it had never happened but it did and it’s still ongoing with the authorities and the police. It’s getting dealt with as we speak.”
The cup win was his final hurrah as Hibs manager, the chance to move into the English game with Rotherham United too tempting to turn down. The move did not go as planned, though, and his time at the Championship club was terminated in October, with a return of just one win from 13 league matches.
“It’s always easy to look back on something when it hasn’t worked out to say it was a regret,” Stubbs reflects. “I looked at the situation [at Hibs] and I didn’t think with the impact we had from winning the cup, we would potentially get the same impact if we got promoted.
“You listen to people and I just felt it was a good offer at the time to go there, potential to do something at a Championship club but unfortunately it didn’t work out. I’m not going to sit here and say Rotherham are this or that, there’s no point and I don’t see the benefit in it. It just didn’t work out.
“You’re working on a very challenging budget, you’re trying to bring in better quality than what’s there or to add to it and it’s very difficult when you’re missing out on players for money that if you want to be competitive you’ve got to be able to go that little bit extra at times.
“For me the most important structure at a club is recruitment. Without that I’m afraid you’re snookered. I literally had to do all that myself.”
With the intention of getting back into management, Stubbs is hoping the Scottish Cup victory counters that short spell at Rotherham and opens doors. “I do want to manage again, I’ve been going around looking at other coaches, watching. It’s been something to do to keep me occupied before I get back involved again.
“I’ve probably just had my first Christmas and New Year off since I started playing professional football.
“That was decent, I must admit, but it’s something I don’t want to get used to. I’ve enjoyed the break, not because it was stressful, the stress of football doesn’t bother me, it’s nothing I worry about. It’s just been a decent break to reflect on things, good decisions, bad decisions and then you regroup, dust yourself down and get ready to go again.”
Hibs will go again in the cup in a couple of weeks, with the players, Stubbs and his successor Neil Lennon hoping they can combine their quest for the Championship title and promotion with a successful defence of the cup.
“Take the financial side away from it, they need to go up this season,” said Stubbs, “and I really hope Neil is the man to do it. He’s done well up to now and he’s in a good position to really take the club forward. They’ve already added in this window and hopefully it’ll be enough for them to get across that line and start competing at the top level.”
But he has some cautionary words for those who think that winning the cup again will be easier now that the monkey is off their back. “No, it is not easier. For me, to do it for a second year would probably be harder because everyone will want to beat the cup holders. You only have to look at what the headlines were last season when Inverness lost: ‘Cup holders are out’ straight away. But it is a nice pressure to start as cup holders.”
Alan Stubbs was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.