John Doolan’s two-year stint as Hibs’ first-team coach may be over, but there’s no chance of his affinity with the club ever fading. Not after a green-and-white scarf clung to the coffin of his beloved father John, who passed away just days before the biggest achievement of his son’s life.
The 47-year-old Scouser is very much a man of the people and, throughout his time in Edinburgh, didn’t think twice about dropping into pubs on Leith Walk or Easter Road to mingle with the locals. He made lifelong friends with Hibs supporters in Joppa, where he lived, and allowed the club to get under his skin. Doolan’s depth of feeling for Hibs was underlined at his father’s funeral, on the Monday before the historic Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers a fortnight ago. “I had a Hibs scarf and an Everton scarf tied to the handles of my dad’s coffin,” he told the Evening News in an emotional farewell interview after following Alan Stubbs to Rotherham to become assistant manager. “It was the Hibs scarf my dad wore whenever he came up to our matches. That’s how much Hibs means to me and my family. I get upset just thinking about it.”
His respect for the Easter Road club was heightened further that day when he turned round and spotted Hibs chairman Rod Petrie and director Bruce Langham among those gathered at St Mary’s Church in Liverpool to pay their respects. Doolan had no idea they would be in attendance.
“I still can’t believe Rod and Bruce turned up at the funeral,” he said. “I thought that was such an unbelievable touch from them to take time out to come down from Edinburgh for my dad’s funeral. They came up to me at the end and they thought it was a lovely touch that I’d put a Hibs scarf on the coffin and said they came because I was part of the Hibs family.
“When we left the church afterwards, I thought to myself ‘I’m not going to phone or text them – I want to see them in person’ because that was just an unbelievable gesture. I didn’t see them again until the day of the final at Hampden. As I was walking out on to the pitch to do the warm-up, the first person I saw was Bruce. I gave him a big hug and said ‘I really appreciate what you did’, and then I saw Rod and it was the same with him. I just started crying. I wiped my tears and said ‘right, I’ll go and get you this cup’.”
And that he was exactly what he did as Hibs eked out a dramatic 3-2 win over Rangers to claim the Scottish Cup for the first time since 1902. When David Gray nodded in the stoppage-time winner, Doolan bounced jubilantly up the touchline before dropping to his knees and looking towards the heavens. It was a rare moment of relief in a turbulent period in his personal life. The usually ebullient coach admits “his head was all over the place” for much of the past few months of his Hibs reign as he struggled to cope with the rapid demise of his father to cancer before eventually losing him just 23 days ago, on the eve of the play-off second leg defeat by Falkirk. In addition, Doolan has been trying to provide moral support for his brother, whose wife is fighting her own cancer battle. As much as he wanted to stay at Hibs for the long haul, the former Wigan Athletic player, who had the chance to remain at Easter Road and would have been in contention to become head coach, felt he had little option but to return to England in his family’s time of need. He was also pulled by the bond he has with boyhood friend Stubbs.
“I had the opportunity to stay at Hibs but the sense of loyalty to stay with Alan was a big factor,” he said. “We go way back to when we were both kids in Liverpool and have a strong friendship. That obviously got tested straight away when he phoned me and mentioned the Rotherham job. I’m thinking to myself ‘we’re only just starting on our journey at Hibs’. I feel like we’ve got unfinished business at Hibs because we wanted to get out of the Championship.
“But another big factor was the emotional stress I’ve been under lately after losing my dad. My sister in law is going through her problems at the minute and my brother’s in bits, so the sway of that has brought me closer to home. Even without the recent problems, it’s still tough being away from your family for two years. The fact I’ve been working at a fantastic club like Hibs has helped me through but my personal problems over the last few months were a big factor in swaying my decision to come here. It’s no good when you feel you have to be driving up and down to England every weekend to be there for your family – it makes it harder to focus on your work. Rotherham’s just an hour and 40 minutes from my home, so I’ll be able to commute.”
Doolan’s eyes well up as he tries to get his head round the whirlwind events of the last couple of weeks. As much as he is looking forward to life in the English Championship, he had no desire whatsoever to leave Hibs. “My head’s been in a spin for a few days in terms of taking this role and leaving a club that’s touched me and my family big time,” he said. “My emotions have been all over the place. I know what I had at Hibs, so to actually come away from it is really tough. I knew nothing about Hibs before I went up there but the club had a real impact on me. It’s touched me big time. I’ve got friends in Edinburgh, I love the place and I love the club. We’re classed as Hibbies now in my eyes. I’ll be back to watch games, and hopefully I’ll be welcome back.”
Doolan admits the reign of he, Stubbs, and assistant coach Andy Holden is not a clear-cut one to assess. He knows that failure to win promotion is deemed a blemish. However, he believes a good barometer of their work is the fact they left the club on a far surer footing than they found it two years ago and, from the post-relegation wreckage of summer 2014, created a team that could go toe to toe with the likes of Aberdeen, Hearts, Rangers and St Johnstone, and regularly come out on top.
“We probably overachieved in the first season in terms of finishing second but we couldn’t get through the play-offs,” said Doolan. “Then this season again things went against us in the play-offs. In the end, it wasn’t just the play-off games against Falkirk that cost us. There were other games we should have won before that, so we probably caused our own downfall. My big regret is not getting promoted.
“The highlight was obviously winning the Scottish Cup, but apart from that I really enjoyed the derbies because you could tell how much they meant to the fans. To beat Hearts a couple of times was really nice. I also enjoyed winning at Ibrox and the game at Easter Road when we beat Rangers 4-0 last season sticks out. We had a lot of highlights.
“The first time I heard Sunshine On Leith really sticks out as well. That was the night we played Dundee United in the League Cup quarter-final in the first season. It was an absolutely brilliant, end-to-end game and we ended up losing on penalties. But then we got a standing ovation and this song came on and I thought ‘Oh my god, what’s this?’ It just sent goosepimples all over. That was the night I think the fans first started to see and appreciate what we were trying to do.
“Yes, we didn’t get promotion and that’s a massive regret. But in terms of where the club was when we came in compared to how we’ve left it, and the fact we won the Scottish Cup, I can look back with pride and say ‘yeah, we did a good job there’. Hopefully the fans feel we’ve left Hibs in a good place and given a bit of pride back to the club.”