Interview: John Hughes - 'Persevere' a fitting motto for Leith and its new favourite son Hughes

RECENTLY, while making one of his regular excursions down Leith Walk, John Hughes noted the banners hanging from streetlamps.

Distinguished Leithers, from Hibernian owner Sir Tom Farmer to writer Irvine Welsh, are depicted celebrating a fiercely proud burgh. This being Hughes, humour is like energy vapour – never far behind. "I am not up there and I am a wee bit disappointed," he smiles. "I will have to give them a phone." There is, though, another face missing when the Hibs manager returns to Leith. It is a more profoundly felt absence.

Few clubs are as rooted to the community as Hibernian. Few men are as much the product of a community as Hughes. But while it empowered him, there can be a dark side to growing up among the unemployed and disenfranchised. This was brought home to Hughes in August 1992, when the youngest of two older brothers – he also has three sisters – fell victim to the drug scourge at the age of just 30. Given the despairing mood of times shaped by harsh economic realities, Hughes was already alert to the possibility that not all lives are given momentum from an existence where, in his own words, you had to duck and dive to survive. Confronted by the crossroads at the Foot of the Walk, some were fated to take a wrong turning.

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Last month was the 17th anniversary of the death of Peter, a loss perhaps still too raw to mention during press conferences following his appointment earlier this summer as manager of Hibernian FC, his latest promotion from Kirkgate urchin. He offers every indication that he would be happy if this was the last step on a ladder he began to climb when a fan of the Easter Road club, and which also saw him reach the rung of popular captain.

In June, on his unveiling as manager, Hughes spoke about what it would have meant to his mother and father, Prue and Michael. Their proximity is a comfort to the manager as he clocks on for work on a Saturday afternoon. Both rest for eternity behind the Famous Five Stand, in another patch of sacred ground known as Eastern Cemetery. But there, too, resides Peter, the too-young victim of the toxic cargo hauled on to the waterfront at Leith in enough bulk for the port to be labelled a heroin hot-spot of the world during the Eighties. "Till we meet again," runs the inscription on a headstone facing towards the Easter Road pitch.

At the end of a long, frank interview, Hughes, who turned 45 earlier this month, is addressing the desire he has to give something back to Leith, to work among the disadvantaged. It is an urge Farmer, among others, has long possessed, reflected in his patronage of Columba 1400, a charity based on the Isle of Skye. But Hughes' concerns are of a more local variety. "Maybe I am selfish that way," he says, apologising for a worldview that tends to extend only so far as the interior of the EH6 postcode.

"I have to be honest," he says, following over an hour of conversation which again reveals Hughes to be Scottish football's street-poet, his vocabulary only occasionally creaking beneath the endless flow of ideas, thoughts and memories. His intelligence burns as fiercely as his lust for life. Having left school without formal qualifications at 15, he appreciates not only what he has, but where he is.

"If it wasn't for football....." He tails off. "I lost a brother to drugs. He died from drugs when drugs hit Leith. Peter was just above me in age. He was a real talented footballer. But he just took the wrong path. When drugs hit Leith a lot of people, a lot of close friends, got tangled up in it. And I could identify with them. I was no angel at times.

"Peter was only 30 when he died. He died a very young boy. It had a real effect. It was hard. I saw what it done to my mother, and the effect it had on her. She never turned him away. But that makes me the guy I am as well.

"I want to be a role model, although I don't think I am high-profile enough for that. I am a humble guy. I am proud of that. What I want to do is get in there, and put something back in. Drugs hit Leith when I was about 18. It started then. And I lost a lot of friends. Football kept me on the straight and narrow. And my parents. It was football, football, football."

He makes a gesture which serves to illustrate the grandness of the Hibs training centre, where we sit facing each other in a white, windowless room. "My 'academy' started at eight in the morning until ten at night," he says. "I would jump in for a piece with jam and out again." But while there were those like Hughes who freebased football, others eventually fell prey to more harmful addictions. The day following his brother's death, Hughes did the only thing he knew what to do – he went out and gave everything he had for his then club, Falkirk.

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"I was just 28," he continues. "Peter was two years older. September 24 was his birthday. So he'll be with my ma' and da' up Easter Road for that, behind the goals. My aunties and uncles are there too. When you say 'see you behind the goals' it means 'catch you later' in Leith. If it wasn't for football, and the good people all around me.... Everyone has had their part to play. Even when I was 14 I met some right good people in the boys' clubs. If it wasn't for football, who knows?"

It is hard to imagine Hughes, who has been set on a relentless course of self- improvement since cutting his teeth as a teenage striker with Berwick Rangers, failing to flourish as a painter and decorator, his initial vocation. Indeed, it is still possible to gauge his talents in this department. He is now based with his wife and three daughters in East Lothian, an almost too-handy eight-minute drive from the Hibs training centre. "The move was not done because of the football thing," he explains. "It was done more because I buy houses, do them up and then sell them. And we got a good offer for the one we had in Leith, and we just felt it was right. All my mates are in the trade. I think we have done up about five houses now. We stay in them, do them up, then sell them on."

Perhaps this absence has made his love letters to Leith seem more intense. He admits to taking unnecessary diversions past old haunts. "I drive down Giles Street now, along to the Shore," he says. "That was our swimming pool. And you see it now. We used to do somersaults from the bridges.

"It's a special place, Leith," he continues. "It really is. My dad was a docker. All my uncles worked in the docks. My mother worked in the whisky bond. She did three jobs: up in the morning, away to do her cleaning job, back to the house to get us up for school, away to the whisky bond then back at night to the cleaning job. That was your upbringing. There was no money going around in our house. Everything we got we had to graft for. In my mother's kitchen there were big pots everywhere because she had to feed six of us. We got brought up on stovies and home-made soup, mince and tatties. Half the boys here would turn their nose up at that..."

It was a tough upbringing, with no complaints. "It's that Leith thing that is ingrained in you - it's the Leith motto: Persevere. You don't show weakness," said Hughes. "You don't show your emotions. You are a man. You are not meant to tell people how you feel. It's ingrained in you. But that makes you the guy you are."

Rather than hailing from streets around the stadium they call home, Hughes must at times seem like someone from another planet to his players. He has wrenched the plasma screens from the wall of the gym, reasoning that it is a place where muscles other than the eye are meant to be given a work-out. In corridors that were previously bare he has instructed that the walls be decorated with photos of Hibernian greats, past and present. For those who go to meet him in his lair, beware of on-the-spot tests. George McCluskey is this writer's starter for ten.

"It's important you come in and feel inspired," explains Hughes. "The players love it. 'Who's that? Who's this?' And you see some of your idols there. I walk out of my office and the first person I see is Jock Stein. Pat Stanton, Sloop, Crops and even big Tony Higgins made it – he's in a corner somewhere. Benny Brazil, Snoddy, Murdo, the '91 cup-winning side, right up to Deek."

Hughes is careful to salute the present generation, Derek Riordan included. But, he concedes, the team is still two transfer windows away from being where he wants it. The recent captures of Anthony Stokes and Liam Miller have, though, fired the imagination of the Hibs support, and highlighted Hughes' powers of persuasion. "The fans know the kind of player I am bringing to this club," he says.

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"Stokesy has still got a bit of a way to go," he acknowledges. "He needs guidance. Liam does not need guidance. I know that because of the way he walks in the morning. The first thing he does is go into that gym and does all his stretches, then he trains like a champion. After that he gets right back into that gym and gets his massages. Then after lunch he's back in the gym, working on his fitness. After the game at Hamilton who's out there doing extra runs? Liam. To get them all like that – that's my aim."

Even ignoring his local ties, Hughes is clearly the right man for the job. But, having made his ambition to manage Hibs clear when a player, Hughes has not been above taking advantage of some helpful coincidences. He got to know Farmer well more than two years ago, when they shared a physiotherapist. Did this help his case when the club again turned their attention to the search for a new manager, after Mixu Paatelainen walked away at the end of last season?

"It might have done, but that's selfprofiling isn't it?", he shrugs. "You go into boardrooms, meet the right people. But I am not here just because I am a Leith boy. I earned my stripes. Trust me."

"One day I will have to leave, and it will break my heart," he continues. "But I will always be a supporter. Possibly the reason I might leave is because I have not got the results. I hope that's not the case. Hopefully I am here for the next ten years."

Hughes leans in. "I'll tell you a secret – I would do this job for free," he whispers. By the time he turns 50, he would love to have given the ultimate gift to the community. Hughes, who saw his Falkirk side lose 1-0 to Rangers in last season's final, has been as close as any Hibee since 1902 to gripping the Scottish Cup. "It's the holy grail," he says. "What I'd do to be coming down Leith with that, seeing all the faces. Maybe that's me dreaming. But you're allowed to dream, are you not?"

He gets up, off to continue preparations for today's league clash with St Johnstone. An afternoon back with his 'ain folk, including those who remain with him in spirit. "Where do I wish I was going right now? Back to my ma's for a bowl of tripe. God rest her."