A Portobello apartment housing two Scousers and a Welshman is proving to be an unlikely nerve centre for the revival of Hibs’ on-field fortunes.
Not only do Alan Stubbs, Andy Holden and John Doolan share mutual friendship, a workplace and a love for Everton FC, the Hibs management team also reside together on the outskirts of Edinburgh. All three men left their families down south in the summer when they were summoned north for the formidable task of trying to rebuild a Hibs side at a low ebb in the aftermath of relegation.
Doolan, the first-team coach, gave an insight into a household that revolves almost entirely around football and breathing new life into the Easter Road club. “The three of us live together and it’s football, football, football,” he said in an interview with the Evening News. “Work, eat, sleep. It’s just a constant circle of football.
“The three of us socialise together, but we just talk football 24/7. Sometimes you need to get away from it, but it’s your life – there is no getting away from it. When we’re not at the training ground, we’re out at development games, first-team games, Premiership games, matches involving teams we’re due to play – we just goes to as many games as we can. If we’re not watching games live, we’re sitting in the lounge or in my bedroom watching games on the laptop.”
The all-consuming nature of being a football obsessive living with two like-minded colleagues has helped ensure their is little time for Doolan to get downhearted about being away from his wife Suzanne and his two boys, Sam, a 14-year-old footballer on Wigan Athletic’s books, and Joel, a 20-year-old student. “I’ve found it tough being away from the family, to be honest,” he said. “I find it hard being away from my wife and the kids, but it’s part of football and part of the job of making sure this club succeeds. Every now and then we’ll go down to see our families. We didn’t go home last weekend because the Under-20s had a big game in the cup on Sunday.
“We might get home this weekend, depending on the result. Sometimes we go home on a Saturday night, other times we’ll go down on a Sunday morning and then come back up on the Monday morning. It makes it easier that the three of us are all in the same boat. We’re three different personalities, but we’re all on the same page. Two Scousers and a Welshman, we have a good laugh. There’s me who’s all OCD in terms of cleaning, I need everything to be spotless and perfect. Taff [Holden] is the one we have to look after and the gaffer is the chef. He’s definitely the best cook. He does a nice pork belly starter in a bird’s nest of lettuce. That’s his speciality in our house.”
Occasionally, head coach Stubbs, 43, assistant coach Holden, 52, and Doolan, 46, will let their hair down and venture into town. “Edinburgh’s fantastic, a lovely city,” said Doolan. “It’s similar to London in terms of having a lot going on, but the people are nicer up here. It’s a cosmopolitan city with plenty nice places to eat. I love it. We don’t get too much time to get into town for eating or socialising but on a day off, maybe on a Wednesday, we’ll try and pop into town for a coffee.”
Doolan and Stubbs grew up kicking a ball about together on the streets of Kirkby, on the edge of Liverpool. Professionally, their paths crossed again at Everton and there was little chance of Doolan, then a youth coach at Wigan, turning down the opportunity to follow his friend to Edinburgh when he landed his first job in football management back in June.
“It was a big thing for me, with Alan, who I’d known since we were both young boys, getting his first management job and me working alongside him properly for the first time and trying to make something happen here,” said Doolan.
“It was a big move for me coming away from my family and a good job that I already had at Wigan, but Alan was the biggest factor in me coming here. He was just starting off on his managerial career and I wanted to be part of it. I didn’t know much about the club, but I trust Alan and I know he’s going to be a great manager.
“I didn’t really know much about Hibs, but seeing the size of the club and the rivalry with Hearts, I thought it was a great opportunity. I was really surprised when I first came up because it’s a massive club with a great fanbase. I couldn’t believe how big a club it was. I definitely made the right decision.”
Within a fortnight of Doolan arriving at Hibs, Holden was recruited, meaning Stubbs had acquired two men he could rely heavily on to aid him in his revival mission.
The three men had all worked at Everton in various capacities, with Doolan having a spell as an academy coach at the club he supports. He left Goodison to further himself under the highly-regarded Roberto Martinez at Wigan in 2011. “I needed to push myself on and I ended up getting a chance to take the Under-18s and Under-21s at Wigan,” said Doolan. “Roberto had a similar philosophy to what I believe in, in terms of playing possession-based football, being patient, playing through the thirds.”
While he enjoyed being part of Martinez’s staff, Doolan, an infectious coach, is relishing being part of Stubbs’ backroom team. Explaining how a tight-knit coaching team go about their business, Doolan said: “Alan, Taff, myself and Alan Combe [the goalkeeping coach, pictured below] sit down together and we have a plan for the week. We go through all the daily sessions and work out whether we’re going to be doing one, two or three sessions a day.
“We do grass sessions; gym sessions; video sessions; individual sessions, where we work individually with players on certain things; unit sessions, where we work, say, with the defenders as a unit or the strikers as a unit. There’s a lot of things going on.
“Personally, my role involves putting the sessions together. Me and Alan [Stubbs] will sit down and talk about what the players need as a group, as well as what they need as individuals. We’ll look at it and say, as a striker, or as a pair of strikers, ‘what do they need to work on?’
“From Wednesday onwards we’ll start to look at the opposition. Myself and Andy have a say in team selection. It’s a group thing, although the gaffer has the final say. On a match-day Andy sits in the stand and me and Alan will be down on the touchline sorting the shape out and trying to effect the play in different ways.
“Me and Alan will be having a confab and then Andy will come down and tell us what he sees and whether or not he thinks we need to change things. It’s been working perfectly for us. The dynamics are really good between the three of us.
“The manager always has the final say, but it’s open house between the three of us in terms of ‘what do you think of this?’ We debate everything. Sometimes we’ll agree on things, but we’ll not always just nod our heads and agree with each other.”
With the January transfer window opening three weeks today, the coaching staff have been busy streamlining a list of potential targets. Chief executive Leeann Dempster explained back in the summer that, due to the high volume of misfits to arrive at Hibs in recent years, all potential new recruits would be fully scrutinised and their merits evaluated to ensure maximum efficiency.
Describing the process, Doolan said: “There’s the three of us, then there’s the chief scout [Graeme Mathie] and there’s Leeann. Firstly, you look at where you need cover and competition, take into account which development lads you’ve got that might be able to step up, and then, as a staff, we come up with a list of possible targets. You’ve got to make sure you target the right positions. You look at a name and say ‘is he available?’ If he’s not, you score him off the list and look at the next player.
“We all throw names in to the mix over a period of a time. Agents and various different contacts phone you, especially at this time of year.
“As soon as you come off the training pitch, you’ve got loads of missed calls and voice messages from lads who are keen to leave clubs. You tend to know which ones have just been swirling around the game and which ones you know to add to your list.
“Because of what’s gone on previously, I think the club are being cautious in terms of making sure every single new signing can be justified. That’s exactly what you want, as it helps make sure all your signings turn out to be good ones. The players we’ve brought in so far have generally excelled.”
While loving his job at Hibs, Doolan is irked that his side languish 19 points adrift of Hearts in the title race. Nonetheless, he is adamant long-term prosperity will come under the current management team. “For me, fourth isn’t good enough for this club,” he said. “I want this club back in the Premiership but we have no divine right to be in the Premiership. We have to earn that right.
“At the start of the season, we wanted to get automatic promotion, but the job has been bigger than we expected in terms of what was left here and how things were left. The fans have been patient and the lads have responded brilliantly. There’s been big changes since we came in. We’ve brought in a lot of players, we’re changing the football we play and we’re changing the mentality of the players and the fans and trying to keep everyone on board.
“In terms of the mentality of the players and the football we’re playing, it’s totally different to what we inherited in the summer. Although we’ve been doing quite well, the teams above us have been winning games as well. The biggest thing is still winning games and it’s taking time, but we’re getting there gradually.”