James McDonaugh was born into “a massive Hibs family” and still recalls proudly how, as a boy, he was determined not to let ex-Hearts owner Wallace Mercer get his hands on the shares his aunt had bought him for his birthday.
Entrenched in all things green and white, it was with a heavy heart that the highly-regarded 36-year-old head of academy coaching called time on seven years as a full-time employee at Easter Road to become Peter Houston’s first-team coach at Championship rivals Falkirk.
“I was emotional when I left,” explained McDonaugh, who said his farewells at the weekend win over Livingston. “I was jumping about on Saturday, but at the same time, sad to be leaving.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but it just seems right. It was always going to be hard leaving Hibs because they’re such a big club and they’re the team I support, but sometimes a new opportunity comes up and you just need to move on and give it a bash.
“I had an amazing time there and don’t have a bad word to say about anyone at the club, but I felt this was an opportunity I had to take at this time in my career. It’s very exciting. [Former Hibs player/coach] Alan Maybury was very influential in setting it up for me. He recommended me highly and put Peter in touch with me so I’ve got a lot to thank him for. Peter is manager and I’m first-team coach, with Alan playing and doing a bit of coaching.
“Effectively, I’ll be Peter’s No.2 and will be taking the training. That was a big selling point for me. A couple of years ago I’d have maybe been a bit apprehensive about taking on a role like this, but I’ve had a bit experience working with the first team under Pat Fenlon and Terry Butcher over the last couple of years and I’ve been working closely with senior players like Kevin Thomson and James McPake, so I’ve been exposed to that side of things. Having said that, it’s a really young first team at Falkirk, so it’s a good fit at a good time for me. Falkirk might not be as big a club as Hibs, but in terms of the coaching, I view it as a promotion.”
Rumours surfaced a few weeks ago that McDonaugh’s position might be under threat as new chief executive Leeann Dempster led a major overhaul of Hibs’ academy. McDonaugh, who recently moved his family from West Lothian to East Lothian in order to be closer to the training ground at East Mains, is keen to play down any notion that he was forced out of the club he loves and instead endorsed the restructuring currently being undertaken.
“There was definitely a chance to remain at Hibs,” he said. “There was still a job for me. They were restructuring, but it was my decision to go. I never took any redundancy money or anything like that. The chance just came along and it seemed like the right time to move on. They’re getting the right people in and putting a great structure in place and it’s exciting for Hibs. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it will get better and better.”
McDonaugh had a desire to make his way in coaching from the moment it became clear that a career as a part-time player with Alloa, Berwick, Whitehill and Spartans wasn’t going to take him to the top level of the game.
Having combined his full-time job at Lloyds Finance with some part-time coaching at Hibs in his 20s, he jumped at the chance to return to Easter Road in a full-time capacity in 2007 after a brief stint as a youth coach at Gretna. Seven years down the line, and with the likes of Alex Harris, Sam Stanton and Danny Handling having been nurtured from childhood into prominent first-team players, McDonaugh is entitled to reflect on a job well done.
“I feel like I was really successful,” he said of his time at Hibs. “I came back to the club in 2007 as grass-roots co-ordinator, overseeing the 12s and down and taking the Under-17s, while assisting Alastair Stevenson with the Under-19s.
“I worked my way up and ended up taking the 19s and 20s. There was a lot of hard work and I helped put a lot of structure in place that wasn’t there before. In addition to developing players, my teams always competed well on the pitch. In the four years I was in charge of the 19s and 20s, we finished fifth in the first season and then third three years in a row. We also beat Celtic four times in a row, which is incredible, and we won the East of Scotland League. At that level, where you finish in the league is not the most important thing – it’s about getting players into the first team.
“Seeing Jordon Forster, Danny Handling, Sam Stanton, Alex Harris and Jason Cummings becoming fixtures in the first team and adding value to it has been really encouraging. They’re all different players but they’ve all got the attributes to do really well for the club and then possibly progress. They’ve had a lot to put up with at Hibs with the regular change of managers and things like that and I can’t speak highly enough of them. From what I’ve seen so far, Alan Stubbs will be a perfect fit for them.”
A particular highlight of McDonaugh’s time at Hibs was seeing an 18-year-old Alex Harris summon the strength of character to force his way into the side and star in the 2013 Scottish Cup final less than a year after the sudden death of his father, Kenny. “Alex came in in the summer two years ago ready to be part of the 20s squad, then lost his dad right at the start of pre-season. You’re there for boys like that away from football matters as well, so to see him, in the same season, break into the first team and then light up a Scottish Cup semi-final and turn the game around and then play in the final, meant so much to me.”
The lowest point came last winter when McDonaugh had to hold things together after 18-year-old academy prospect David Paul died in his sleep just before Christmas. “That was a horrendous time,” said McDonaugh. “Unless you’ve been in that position, I don’t think anyone can realise how much something like that hits you. You’ve got so many young boys to help pull through. It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in football. I remember at the time wondering how we’d ever win a game of football again, but we found the strength from somewhere.”