MOST of Edinburgh knows Alan Combe did not exactly grow up supporting Hearts. He joined the club just six months ago, however his appreciation of their stature, standards and traditions is second to none. Born and bred in Leith, Combe feels “privileged” being goalkeeping coach at Riccarton and senses an air of expectancy heading to Hampden Park this weekend.
The Scottish Communities League Cup final pits his current employers against one of his old ones, St Mirren. There is no emotion or sentiment, for Combe’s sole focus these days is helping Hearts win. His role has taken on slightly more significance since manager John McGlynn was sacked and he is deadly serious about guiding the Tynecastle club to success. It is also refreshing to hear him discuss his methods openly. At 38, he could conceivably be playing in Sunday’s final but put his own career on the back burner to pursue coaching ambitions with Hearts. He left a coaching post at St Johnstone last summer to sign a player’s contract with First Division promotion favourites Morton. Three months later, McGlynn made the phone call which brought Combe back to Edinburgh to replace Arturas Ramoska.
Within six months he is preparing Jamie MacDonald and Mark Ridgers for one of the biggest days of their lives. Combe has played for Cowdenbeath, St Mirren, Dundee United, Bradford City and Kilmarnock amongst others and is registered on the Hearts playing staff in case of emergencies. Yet he derives endless satisfaction from his current role as a coach. Reaching cup finals certainly helps.
“When you come to a club the stature of Hearts, this is what you expect,” he said in his first interview since joining the Tynecastle club. “Fans expect you to get to finals. Only ten months ago they won the biggest one so, when I got the opportunity from John McGlynn to come here, I didn’t need to think too long about it. I was still playing at Morton but at the age I’m at, coming towards the end of my career, to be offered a player-coach role was something I couldn’t turn down. I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
“Hearts were looking to get someone in with the right coaching qualifications and who was still able to play. Someone who could look after the academy goalies and the first-team keepers but be available to play just in case. With finances being what they are, they wanted an experienced goalie who could still step in when required. I fitted the bill and I was delighted when I got the phone call.
“I’d left a coaching post at St Johnstone to get back playing at Morton because I still wanted to play. I just felt that an opportunity like this doesn’t come around too often. If somebody got this job instead of me, they might have been here for a few years. To get a chance like this with a team like Hearts, you’re never going to turn it down. Obviously there have been problems within the club but you just need to focus on your job. My job is to get the goalkeepers ready for a game on Saturday, and I’ve taken part in a few games myself for the under-20s.
“I was born in Edinburgh and I know everything about Hearts. I know the traditions and I know what it was like playing against Hearts. I seemed to play a lot of my good games against them. I know what it means to the people here to go and win a cup.
“The number of people who will be at Hampden on Sunday shows how big this club is. The fans can see what is being done here. Obviously it’s a massive transitional period but the supporters have backed us 100 per cent.”
What about facing St Mirren, where he spent five happy years? “I’m happy they got there. It won’t be emotional for me but I’ll be delighted on Sunday to see them there. As soon as that whistle goes, I’m only wanting one team to win.
“With what’s happened this season, our boys have done fantastically well to get to this final. To be part of that as a backroom member is a real privilege. But getting there is one thing, you want to go on and win it. A few of the boys have been to Hampden last year. Hopefully they can go and sample that victory again and we’ll maybe see what an open-top bus feels like. I’ve never been on one before.”
Combe’s approach is along the lines of “work hard, play hard”. The serious side to his job is complemented by a light-hearted outlook that makes goalkeeping daily fun for those under his command. MacDonald and Ridgers are backed up by 20-year-old Jack Hamilton. Combe keeps all three busy. “I keep them on their toes. They know that I’m available if they don’t perform,” he smiles. “I don’t see myself being a first-choice playing every week, but I do enough in training to keep myself ticking over. I also keep Jack and Mark on their toes to push Jamie, who is our established first-choice goalkeeper.
“I think it’s imperative that you have laughter as well as hard work. That’s the way I like to do it. That’s how it was throughout my career. If you can have a laugh it makes the job a wee bit easier, especially if you’re having a hard time. We have a good laugh and a joke between us. If I feel somebody isn’t stepping up to the plate, I’ll say ‘listen, you need to get on your toes or I’ll be taking your place on Saturday’. It’s good for a bit of banter.
“That’s something I started doing when I got to about 30. I would talk to the goalkeepers at whatever club I was at. I’d try to keep their heads in the right place and keep them motivated to go and play. I’ve been in that situation myself and it isn’t a nice place. You feel as if everybody’s against you. It’s about keeping everybody in the right frame of mind, telling them they are all young and have bright futures if they keep working hard.”
The standard of all Hearts’ goalkeepers has impressed Combe. “For Jamie to be 26 and just getting established shows great professionalism and patience. He deserves his chance and I think he’s thoroughly taken it. Jamie has worked with some very good goalkeepers here and learned from the best.
“I’m told Mark kept himself in great shape last summer and was really unfortunate to get the (knee ligament) injury. He’s bounced back from it now and he’s raring to go.
“It’s my job to push him not to be happy sitting on the bench. I need to get him moving every week to prove he’s worthy of that No. 1 jersey and, if he gets the chance, to go and take it. Jack has just had a successful loan spell at Forfar. He really enjoyed playing every Saturday at a good standard and he wants to play every week now. That’s the problem we have. He is now back to third choice and isn’t playing every week. His time will come, though.”
If Combe has one negative from his first six months at Riccarton, it is the recent dismissal of McGlynn as manager. Winning the League Cup with his team is huge motivation for Combe, interim managers Gary Locke and Darren Murray, plus assistant manager Edgaras Jankauskas. It’s a hard one to take when it happens. It’s something you think is very, very harsh given the circumstances at the club,” said Combe.
“I can’t say a bad word about John McGlynn. He brought me here. What the four of us have done is try to get everybody together and make this a close-knit group. We’re working to get higher up the league, be a hard team to beat and go and win this cup for John. Let’s face it, this is his team. You want to go out there and do it for yourself, the fans and the club. At the back of your mind is to get that cup for John McGlynn.”