Alan Combe twice came within touching distance of realising his lifelong ambition by signing for Hibs, only to be left bitterly disappointed on both occasions.
However, now at the age of 40, he hasn’t given up on living the dream after becoming the Easter Road outfit’s goalkeeping coach. For while that will be his primary role, Combe has also been registered as a player, opening the door to the hope that he may yet pull on the gloves for the team he’s supported since he was a young boy.
Throughout a long playing career encompassing spells with Cowdenbeath, St Mirren, Dundee United, Bradford City and Kilmarnock, Combe’s name was repeatedly linked with a move to Hibs, only for the rumour and gossip to come to nothing – until a shock phone call led to him joining Alan Stubbs’ new-look backroom staff.
“It’s taken me a wee while to get here,” he laughed during an exclusive interview with the Evening News. “I’ve always been a Hibs fan and I was here training when I was 13 or 14 – and there were a couple of occasions when it could actually have happened under two different managers. I won’t name them, but it didn’t materialise for some reason. Obviously I was a bit disappointed, but I never gave up hope and now I am absolutely over the moon to be here. I’ve been given a great opportunity by Alan and hopefully it goes well for me.”
Axed after two seasons as goalkeeping coach at Capital rivals Hearts, Combe had been invited to help out at Alloa Athletic boss by Barry Smith when Hibs came calling, asking if he could attend an early-morning interview.
He said: “I’d played against Alan in his days with Celtic, but that was it – there was no other connection. It was a bit of a shock to get that call. I had to be at East Mains at 8.15 the morning before the Berwick Rangers game, but I was there an hour early to make sure I wasn’t late.
“I spoke to Alan – he said he wanted me at the game the next day and that hopefully we’d get a deal sorted out as quickly as possible. I was probably a bit fortunate in that Hibs were looking for someone who could do that dual role of player/coach and I fell into that category. Here I am and I’ve loved every minute so far.”
While Combe, whose great uncle was Bobby Combe, a star of Hibs’ Famous Five era, admits he’d love to finally get the chance to play for the Easter Road side, he stresses time and again that his primary function will be coaching with Stubbs, although right now he only has young goalkeepers Kleton Perntreou and Sean Brennan at his disposal following the release of Ben Williams, Sean Murdoch and Paul Grant.
Naturally, Stubbs is looking for an experienced No.1 – Frenchman Antoine Gounet played as a trialist against Stirling Albion at the weekend – but Combe intends to keep himself in shape should he be called upon.
He said: “My job is to look after the goalkeepers, to get them right on a Saturday. That is what I will be focusing on, but you never know ... I’ll be keeping myself in the best shape possible and if that occasion were to come along I’d be jumping at the chance.”
Last season Combe found himself in a somewhat unique situation, coach at a club almost inevitably losing its fight against relegation following a 15-point deduction incurred due to administration and hamstrung by a transfer embargo, while watching the team he supports implode, ultimately losing their place in the top-flight of Scottish football in a traumatic play-off penalty shoot-out.
The repercussions are still being felt, with former Hibs player Paul Kane heading the “Petrie Out” campaign aimed at ousting chairman Rod Petrie, but Combe, though, believes all focus should now be on the coming season and Hibs’ bid to win immediate promotion.
He said: “Last season wasn’t great for the club, going down in the manner they did when I was on the other side getting relegated as well.
“It’s not great for the city, but it’s going to be a tremendous league this year. We just have to focus on the future, not what has happened. There’s no point in dwelling on it and continuing to talk about it in my opinion. We all want to go back up so we need everyone, the players and fans, pulling in the same direction.”
And, he revealed, if the enthusiasm of Stubbs, his assistant Andy Holden and first-team coach John Doolan is anything to go by, then there is plenty of reason for optimism.
“We need to progress on the pitch and we will do that,” Combe said. “I have only been in a week and what I can see is that they are so enthusiastic in the way they go about things and the way the talk people up. All they do is praise, every day it is ‘well done, well done’.
“If anyone makes a mistake it’s okay, they are told not to worry about it, to just get up and play and try to do better next time. That’s what’s needed, someone in your head all the time praising you so I think Alan and his team will do well.”
Having crossed and recrossed the “great divide”, Combe revealed he’s been delighted at the messages of support he’s been receiving, saying: “I don’t like talking about the past, what’s happened has happened. I had a great job at Hearts, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I am honoured and over the moon to be at Hibs. The boys here have been absolutely brilliant since I walked in the door, while I’ve received a lot of phone calls from Tynecastle congratulating me on being back in the game and adding, ‘You’ll be buzzing you are at your Hibs’.
“My mum’s half of the family are all Jambos, while my dad’s half are Hibees, so they are all delighted I’m here.”