At this time two years ago, Hibs were in turmoil.
They had just been relegated, the entire squad were effectively told they were free to leave the club, and mutinous supporters were busy organising a protest against chairman Rod Petrie. Terry Butcher was still in his post as manager but just about to be sacked, leaving his successor tasked with the job of sorting out the whole sorry mess in time to tackle Hearts and Rangers in the following season’s Championship.
Alan Stubbs, the man who replaced Butcher, has ensured that, as he departs for Rotherham United, he is leaving no such carnage behind for whoever follows him into the head coach role.
The Hibs job can now be viewed as a significantly more attractive proposition to potential candidates than it has been for some time. Where once it was seen as the ultimate thankless task in football, Stubbs’ work has made sure being in charge of Hibs can now be looked upon as a genuinely exciting opportunity.
For starters, he has become the first manager since Tony Mowbray, almost a decade ago, to be headhunted from Easter Road. The fact that good work at Easter Road can secure a leap to the English Championship is sure to appeal to plenty. But perhaps the biggest selling point is that the nucleus of a talented and well-balanced squad remains under contract, and that, unlike in the tumultuous summer of 2014, most of the behind-the-scenes foundations for success have been put in place by a high-calibre, clued-up management team.
“The Hibs job is a lot more appealing at the moment than it will have been for some time,” said former Hibs player and radio pundit Tam McManus.
“It’s not a poisoned chalice any more. The Scottish Cup monkey’s off the club’s back and whoever comes in next will be inheriting the guts of a squad that has just won the Scottish Cup and finished runner-up in the League Cup. Even though Anthony Stokes and Liam Henderson will be going back to Celtic and Paul Hanlon is out of contract, Alan is leaving a better standard of squad than he inherited. When he came in, the squad was decimated and he had to build from scratch.”
Although the allure of the job would be slightly diminished by the fact Hibs remain in the Scottish Championship, the knowledge that there will be no heavyweight rivalry for the title from clubs like Rangers and Hearts makes leading the Easter Road club a notably less daunting prospect. Even if prized assets like Jason Cummings and John McGinn were sold, Hibs are still sure to begin the campaign as favourites to win the league.
“It was very difficult for Alan Stubbs being up against Hearts and Rangers in the Championship but next season Hibs will be the biggest club in the division,” said McManus. “Dundee United will have a bit of a go but Hibs will have the biggest budget and will be the big favourites to go up, no doubt about it.”
McManus believes Hibs are in a position to aim high in the search for Stubbs’ successor.
“For me, even in the Championship, Hibs is one of the top five jobs in the country,” he said. “There’s a real opportunity to grow. The fanbase is there, the training centre is there, the stadium is there – everything is in place for Hibs to go and compete at the top end of Scottish football once they’re out of the Championship. It’s a very inviting job for most coaches in Scotland.
“I think they’re in a position to go for a reasonably high-calibre manager. There’ll certainly be managers in the Premiership at the moment who will look at the Hibs job and think ‘if I could get them up to the Premiership, there’s real scope to grow’. There’s more room for growth at Hibs than at most teams in Scotland. The likes of Inverness, Ross County and St Johnstone might be a league above, but there’s only so much you can do at those clubs. Look at Tommy Wright – he’s done brilliantly to finish fourth with St Johnstone, but you can’t really go much further than that. Hibs have far more potential to go up the way and I think that’s something most managers would look at. With Hibs, there really is a chance to go and challenge the Old Firm in the future.”
As someone who witnessed several managerial changes in his playing career, McManus believes there will be a sense of anxiety among the Hibs players as they wait to learn who will be replacing the popular head coach.
“If you’re at a club and you like the manager and he plays you every week, there’s always going to be a bit of apprehension about who’s going to come in the door,” said the 35-year-old former striker. “Alan’s clearly very popular among the players, so they will be gutted about him leaving and a bit apprehensive about who’s going to come in. Everybody starts with a clean slate, so if you’re a regular starter under one manager, that’s not guaranteed to continue under a new man. A new man coming in can make or break an individual’s career at a club.”
Having seen at close quarters how Hibs faded after Alex McLeish was headhunted by Rangers in 2001, McManus knows how crucial it is that his old club replace Stubbs with another successful appointment.
“Alex was the best manager I ever worked under but, after he left, Franck Sauzee came in and things didn’t work out,” said McManus.
“That’s always the danger after having a popular manager, that there is then a bit of a lull at the club. If Alan leaves, Hibs will have a massive decision to make sure they get the right man. The club have obviously had a very mixed record with their last half-a-dozen managers or so. In my opinion, there are quite a few managers out there who fit the bill and know the Scottish game, but equally Hibs have done well out of bringing in guys like Tony Mowbray and Alan Stubbs, who hadn’t previously mentioned. Personally, I think they’d need to get someone in who knows the Scottish game because they’ll be competing against guys like Peter Houston [Falkirk] and Ray McKinnon [Dundee United] who know that division inside out. It’s vital that they hit the ground running next season.”