John Doolan is just as wholehearted off the park as he appears when leaping about the technical area on a match-day.
Spending time with Hibs’ exuberant Scouse first-team coach is an education for anyone who has never worked within a football club.
As we meet at the East Mains training centre, he gives me an insight into the level of video analysis that is done to ensure the Hibs players are equipped with every piece of knowledge imaginable on their next opponents. “This is my homework for tonight,” quips the 47-year-old, as he prepares to head home and spend his evening on the iPad searching for weaknesses or patterns in Livingston’s play that can be exploited at Easter Road tomorrow.
Doolan loves his job and intends to do everything in his power to make sure he brings genuine prosperity to a club that gave him a platform to progress to coaching at first-team level after previously working predominantly with youths at Everton and Wigan Athletic. His primary focus is on ensuring the Hibs players are prepared as best as possible, but believes he also has a responsibility to make sure supporters feel a part of the club. Although away from his family in Liverpool, he feels at home with all things Hibs, so much so that he decided to venture out and mingle with supporters after the 2-1 victory over Rangers a couple of weeks ago.
“I’m just Joe Public myself and I love football just like every other fan,” he said. “I’m an approachable person. I’d driven past the Harp and Castle on Leith Walk a few times with my wife and I’d always threatened to go in there because I knew it was a Hibs pub. I’d never gone in before but two of my close friends came up for the Rangers game. One of them was Peter Hooton, who is the lead singer of The Farm. He knows [Hibs-supporting author] Irvine Welsh really well. The game finished and Irvine Welsh was tweeting Peter and told him we should go into the Harp and Castle.
“I was more than happy to go in and when I sat down one or two fans came over. One said ‘it’s a good job no-one knows who you are, but I know who you are’ and gave me a nudge. But pretty soon word had got round and everybody was coming over to chat and the whole pub was singing Hibs songs. They were all singing Stubbsy’s name and it was just great because it was after a good win. I had a few pints of coke, then we went over to Robbie’s across the road and then I drove my mates to Waverley Station.
“I’d go anywhere there was Hibs fans, even if we’d lost. [Head of football operations] George Craig and [chief executive] Leeann Dempster have done brilliant to build relationships with the fans and the community, which is really important. I think it’s important to have a link with the fans so they know they have people to speak to at the club.
“People only really see me on the pitch doing the warm-up or in the technical area shouting at the players, but there’s nothing better than being around football people, especially your own fans, when they can tell you what they think and how they feel about the club. It’s interesting. They were very complimentary about what we’ve done although the first fan I spoke to was telling me how he would have set the team up against Rangers. We had a good laugh about it and I said ‘well, it’s a good job we did it our way because we won the game.’ It was good banter and a great atmosphere. The match was still on the telly because they were showing a rerun and we all celebrated Paul Hanlon’s goal again. I had a great time – I’ll definitely go in there again.”
Having taken the decision to leave his family behind in Liverpool at a time when his son is prospering in Wigan’s academy, Doolan was never going to be half-hearted in his approach to the Hibs job. The sight of the club rediscovering its mojo since he, Stubbs and assistant coach Andy Holden arrived has made the significant sacrifices seem worthwhile.
“It’s hard being away from my family, but I love football and being around a club like this that embraces everything,” he said. “I didn’t know the size of the club when I first came up, but it is a massive club and a great job to have. I’ve grown with the job and I love coming to work every day. The squad’s got bigger and better and it makes it a lot easier when you’ve got lads who just want to learn. I love working with this group.
“I watch loads of live games for scouting purposes and I love being on the circuit. I honestly can’t get enough of it. It is a tough job but this is an unbelievable place to work. Edinburgh’s a nice place to be, with nice people. I’ve worked full-time in the past, so that helps me appreciate what I’ve got even more. If you love doing your job, you never do a day’s work. There are many people who would love to have this job. It’s a joy to be at the club and to represent it.”
It still rankles with Doolan that Hibs didn’t get promoted last season. It also irks him that they are in Rangers’ slipstream this time round largely because of an opening-day lapse at Dumbarton which happened at a time when the transfer saga surrounding last year’s talisman, Scott Allan, was taking its toll on the club. Even allowing for off-field distractions, that dismal August day annoyed Doolan so much that, after last month’s 4-2 win over the Sons at Easter Road, he decided to show some of the players video reruns of their mistakes in the previous game against them in order to remind them why they had lost, and to ensure complacency didn’t creep in. He believes Hibs are now firmly on the right path towards reclaiming their place in the top flight.
“We did a lot of things right last season but we didn’t get the results we needed in the play-offs, and that’s something we need to put right this year,” he said. “The Scotty Allan stuff probably had an impact on what we were doing at the start of this season and also the mentality of the club, but the whole thing made us stronger within. As a coaching staff, we’re a strong unit and we just had to keep everything going as normal as we could.
“We were probably a bit reliant on Scotty last season to make things happen and give us that bit of magic, but we’ve got a few of those types in the team now. I was always confident we’d deal with losing Scotty because I knew we’d made good signings. John McGinn’s gone from strength to strength, Dylan McGeouch’s a top player who wants to learn, and Liam Henderson’s the same. You get those three together with either Marvin Bartley or Fraser Fyvie behind them and James Keatings, Jason Cummings or Dom [Malonga] in front of them, that’s an exciting team.
“We’ve shown in the last two seasons that we’re good enough to compete with good Premiership teams, so hopefully we’re up there next season and we can show everyone what we’re about. This is a Premiership club and it’s only a matter of time before we’re back there.”
Doolan has enjoyed working alongside childhood friend Stubbs and can see why his name seems to be linked with any English Championship job that comes up. However, he assured Hibs fans that, having signed contract extensions in the summer, the coaching staff are focused only on restoring Hibs to the top-flight.
“It’s mad how we’ve gone from kicking a ball about together as kids to being in charge of one of the biggest football teams in Scotland,” said Doolan. “It’s been interesting working with Alan because you get to see another side to him. I stand there and look at him at times and just think ‘yeah, really good decision’.
“I’ve seen him grow within the job and I think he’s definitely going to go to the top eventually. He’s learning every day and he’s got better week to week. He’s got better from last season to this season. The players and the staff are all right behind him and he’s only going to do well here.
“If you’re doing well, competing for titles and in cup semi-finals as we are, you’re always going to get noticed. People in football are always losing their jobs, and when that happens, people look towards the managers who are doing well. Alan’s obviously doing well at Hibs, so his name is going to be linked to other jobs – it’s simple. But this club gave Alan and ourselves our first proper chance and we want to repay them. The only way we’re going to repay them is by putting this club back in the Premiership and doing well there. All we’re focused on is getting this squad back in the Premiership.”