Alan Stubbs will confess to telling a wee white lie as he prepared to take charge of Hibs for the first time, the new head coach declaring that his side were ready for action when he knew in his heart of hearts they were anything but.
Just five weeks earlier he’d arrived at Easter Road, the surprise replacement for the sacked Terry Butcher, to find he barely had a team to take charge of, 11 players axed in the wake of relegation and another three who’d been brought in on loan for that disastrous second half to the season having returned to their parent clubs.
Only 11 remained under contract, their confidence shredded and, in Stubbs’ estimation they “should not have been in the condition they were”. Adding to his problems was the fact he’d been left without an experienced goalkeeper, the numbers at his disposal decreasing even further as James Collins, Ryan McGivern and Owain Tudur Jones joined those who’d already headed for the exit door, as did Michael Nelson on learning his playing time was likely to be limited.
The easy option, Stubbs later revealed, having been offered the post following a lengthy interview with new chief executive Leeann Dempster and George Craig, the club’s newly appointed head of football operations, would have been to say “thanks but no thanks.” However, he was well aware from his time as a Celtic player of the potential at Easter Road and the challenge of working from a blank canvass to fashion a football club as he wished proved too great to resist for the then Everton youth coach.
“Everyone has allowed me to do it,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. I have been allowed to get on with it. All the players that have come in have been my decision and that will never change.”
Nevertheless, Stubbs faced a race against time to assemble a team for the opening game of the season, the draw for the Petrofac Training Challenge Cup having handed him his first test, away to Rangers, then the overwhelming favourites to lift the Championship title. However, the fact Ibrox was utilised by the Commonwealth Games for its rugby sevens tournament gave him vital days breathing space.
Trialists came and went throughout pre-season, while Stubbs was heavily dependent in those preparatory games on youngsters, most of whom he knew were way off being considered for first-team duty. And off the pitch the recruitment drive was also running at fever pitch as Stubbs’ backroom staff was also assembled.
By the time that trip to Govan came around, goalkeeper Mark Oxley, right-back David Gray, striker Farid El Alagui and, to the surprise of most, midfielder Scott Allan had all arrived. Stubbs, despite the pressure of time weighing on his shoulders, adamant he’d patiently await those he wanted rather than rush into panic signings.
Although Hibs lost the tie in extra-time, rather unluckily in the eyes of many with Danny Handling having been sent off, the future at least held a little promise for those fans who’d travelled along the M8.
Stubbs told the club’s recent annual meeting: “We had to hit the ground running as quickly as possible. Behind the scenes what we had to do in the space of five weeks to prepare the team for the first game at Rangers was always going to be very difficult.
“I had to come out and say we were ready. But we were not ready, we were not fit enough, not where I wanted them to be. I make no bones about this, the players should not have been in the condition they were. It was going to take time.”
By the end of August defender Liam Fontaine was added to an admittedly threadbare defence while Matty Kennedy and Jake Sinclair arrived on loan from Everton and Southampton respectively until January and Dylan McGeouch was snapped up from Celtic on a similar deal but to the end of the season, the trio sharing one common attribute – young players desperate to play first team football.
Results, though, remained patchy in that early period. Slowly but surely, though, the work being put in by head of sports science and fitness Craig Flannigan and strength and conditioning coach Paul Green and their teams began to show as did the self-belief Stubbs and his right hand men Andy Holden and John Doolan worked so hard to instil.
The players, too, began to gel as a team, free to express themselves without recrimination and becoming, in Stubbs’ estimation, as good as anyone on their day as their current run of just one defeat over 90 minutes in their last 21 matches would suggest even if, as the head coach has admitted, there’s been too many draws, particularly at home.
Those draws and that stuttering start have all but killed Hibs hopes of taking the title and with it that one automatic promotion place and although 20 points may separate them from Capital rivals and league leaders Hearts, Stubbs would argue the games between the two clubs suggest there’s nothing between them.
Wins over Rangers home and away leave Hibs heading for Ibrox again on Friday night confident of overhauling the beleaguered Govan outfit with a third straight win against them, their boss having described their performance in the 4-0 pounding of the Glasgow club at Easter Road only a few weeks ago as “close to perfection” as he could have wished.
This time round, though, Kenny McDowall and his players will see what Stubbs firmly believes is a Hibs side which has improved yet more, one bolstered by the January arrivals of Martin Boyle, Tomas Cerny, Keith Watson, Frank Dja Djedje and, in what was seen as another coup, Fraser Fyvie, each of them adding to the competition for places which was perhaps lacking only a few months ago.
Add in the return of Dominique Malonga from international duty at the African Cup of Nations and the much-anticipated comeback of his fellow striker Farid El Alagui, missing since the end of August with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and it’s easy to understand how the deep despair of last summer has been replaced by renewed optimism.
Claiming he feels he’s crammed five years of learning into his first seven months as a manager, Stubbs said: “The style of football you have seen is a big improvement and I still think there’s a lot of improvement to come especially with the players I want to bring to the club.
“I definitely feel we are moving in the right direction, there’s a real sense of progress.”