Maurice Malpas insists his first game against Inverness since leaving the Highland club will be nowhere near as emotionally challenging for him as the last meeting between Hibs and Caley Thistle.
While Inverness will always hold a special place in the heart of the Easter Road No. 2 following five memorable years there as assistant to current Hibs boss Terry Butcher, trying to get the better of them in tonight’s match at the Caledonian Stadium will be small fry in terms of awkwardness compared to the day he had to try to beat the side he knew he might be about to join.
Even now, Malpas still winces as he recalls stepping up to take charge of Caley Thistle for their visit to Easter Road back in November as Butcher took time out to ponder the offer from Hibs to take over from Pat Fenlon. Malpas was effectively placed between a rock and a hard place, but his professionalism shone through as he steered Inverness to a sure-footed 2-0 victory.
“Talk about uncomfortable, I was uncomfortable that day,” he recalls. “The week leading up to the game was a strange one because there was a lot happening behind the scenes. I wasn’t sure what was happening with me in particular. Although Terry occasionally sits in the stand or gets sent to the stand, it was still strange not having him in the dressing-room. It’s been virtually ten years that we’ve been about each other’s pockets on a Saturday so that bit was strange for me.
“Once the game started, it was a bit easier. I probably get too engrossed in games and don’t see the stuff on the periphery, so that time it was a good thing because once the game started I just went into automatic pilot and forgot about what was happening before the game and what might have been about to happen after the game.”
Having returned to the Caledonian Stadium on a scouting mission on Sunday, when he saw Dundee United, another of his old clubs, crush Inverness 5-0 in the Scottish Cup, Malpas is confident he’ll take tonight’s assignment in his stride, as he has had to do on plenty of previous occasions when returning to former clubs close to his heart, like United and Motherwell.
“It’s strange the first couple of times you go back to a former club but, after that, it’s part of your job and you just learn to handle it,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll get a bit of criticism but we’ll lap that up. The best part is seeing familiar faces.
“I was up on Sunday so I saw a lot of the office staff and the directors, so I’ve got that out my system. It’s just a case of going up for the game and afterwards I’ll speak to some of their players, as you do when you’re up against any players you’ve worked with previously.”
If there’s any awkwardness in the Highlands tonight, Malpas reckons it will be surrounding his old club, who view the game as a hindrance as they prepare for Sunday’s League Cup final against Aberdeen. “It’s difficult for a team that’s not used to being in cup finals to handle the build-up,” said Malpas.
“When we were at Motherwell we had a month of torture because all that the boys were interested in was the cup final and I’m sure Inverness will be the same. It’s difficult for them playing the midweek before such a big game. Some people say it’s good because it’ll take their minds off the game but, having played in cup finals, the hardest thing is always the game before a cup final because you’re always concerned in case you get a knock or a stupid sending off.
“It’s all about what we do though and whether we’re mentally strong enough to go up there and handle the conditions and whatever Inverness throw at us. Having seen the pitch on Sunday, it’ll not be a technical game up there. It’ll probably be blood and snotters – we’ve got to handle it.”
Inverness are comfortably in the top six and preparing for the biggest game in their history at the weekend, while Hibs, who are still not clear of the relegation play-off place, have plenty work to do to make the top six, having won only one of their last eight league games. Malpas, however, has loved his four months at the Easter Road club and remains adamant that improvement will come once he and Butcher have had a decent amount of time to impart their ideas and shape the squad as they see fit.
“It’s been enjoyable and I certainly don’t have any regrets about coming here,” said Malpas, who commutes daily to Edinburgh from his Dundee home. “Without being disrespectful to Inverness, I’m at a bigger club with a bigger fanbase and better training facilities. I feel like I’ve won a watch. My role hasn’t changed much from what I was doing at Inverness. The main difference is that I’m a bit lazier here because I don’t have to go out and set up pitches here like I had to at Inverness.
“Me and Terry have virtually worked the same way right through from when we were at Motherwell together. We share the same office and we’re constantly bouncing ideas off each other. We know what we’re doing and we’re comfortable doing it.”
The main challenge Malpas and Butcher have faced since arriving at Hibs has been getting players to become comfortable with their methods. “We’ve tried to get our philosophy and our ethics into them,” said Malpas. “One or two players have struggled with it and one or two I’m sure don’t like how we go about our business, but that’s their problem, not ours. It’s just a case of trying to get them all used to how we set our training up and how we set our match-days up. At the start we were getting good results and we’ve had a dip since then, but we probably expected that. Our aim this season is to get into the top six and we’re still trying like mad to achieve that. But in the long term our aim is to get a full squad where everybody’s buying into what we want to do.”