The surroundings at Hibs’ impressive East Mains training centre have that familiar appeal of “home”, but after almost two years as a footballing outcast, Callum Booth finds the faces only of strangers looking back at him.
Such has been the turnover in playing staff during his absence, only long-term pal Paul Hanlon remains from the day ex-Easter Road boss Pat Fenlon concluded the former Scotland Under-21 internationalist wasn’t part of his plans, a decision which led to him being cast out on loan to Livingston and then Raith Rovers.
But as he returned for the first day of pre-season training, desperate to reclaim his green-and-white jersey for the remaining year of his contract, Booth found the Capital club engulfed in turmoil, Under-20 coach James McDonaugh taking a depleted squad of just 14 players through their paces as they await a successor to the sacked Terry Butcher.
The wait for a replacement should end today with the appointment of Alan Stubbs, the 42-year-old having emerged as the leading contender from new chief executive Leeann Dempster’s search for a seventh manager in just eight years with only the finer details to be ironed out before he and his assistant David Unsworth put pen to paper, the pair having formed the same partnership as they took charge of Everton’s Under-21 side.
The topic of Butcher’s replacement has, not surprisingly, been the subject of much discussion between Hanlon and Booth in recent days as they prepare for the rigours of pre-season training by going out running together although, as the 23-year-old pointed out, he is hardly in a position to share his thoughts on his latest manager until an official announcement is finally made.
But he is, he admitted, at least in the same boat as the others who will meet Stubbs and Unsworth for the first time in that he is not the only one who needs to impress the new gaffer – although it was Butcher who had told him a few months ago his days as an exile were coming to an end.
The left-back said: “Pre-season training is always going to be hard regardless of who is in charge and I have been preparing myself for going back.
“I’ve been looking forward to it having been away for nearly two years, while I’ve also enjoyed a bit of a longer break than the other boys as the Championship finished that bit earlier.
“It’s a bit of a strange situation, but nothing surprises you in football. It’s just one of those things and as a player you just have to get on with it. I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things and it’s a new start for us all, a clean slate and everyone will be trying to impress the new manager, to catch his eye and make sure they are in his plans right away.”
Stubbs will face the unenviable challenge of returning Hibs to the Scottish Premiership at the first time of asking, no easy task when you consider both Capital rivals Hearts and Rangers will also be vying for the title and the one automatic promotion place it carries.
However, given his experience of the second tier over the past couple of years, Booth warned the “big three” would be foolish to believe the fight only involves them, though, he admitted, he remains baffled as to how Hibs find themselves in such a predicament having been one of those that, despite Butcher’s side being in freefall for the second half of last season, he was certain wouldn’t suffer the ignominy of relegation.
He said: “To be honest, I never saw it coming. If you’d have said four or five months ago it would have ended as it did I would have been shocked. But that’s football, you can never tell what’s around the corner. You can’t change anything, it’s happened and now it’s a case of looking forward and not back.”
While Stubbs will no doubt arrive at Easter Road armed with complete dossiers on the teams Hibs will be facing over the coming months, both he and his new bunch of players – to which he’ll most certainly set about adding fresh faces almost immediately – the former Celtic defender may pull Booth aside and ask for his first-hand experience of the Championship.
While accepting most will see it as a straight fight involving Rangers, Hibs and Hearts, Booth – who made only six appearances under Fenlon before being ditched – isn’t so sure, citing Raith’s Scottish Cup victory over his “parent” club and their Ramsdens Cup triumph against Rangers. Both games, ironically, took place at Easter Road.
The Stark’s Park outfit took the Jambos to a penalty shoot-out in the League Cup as did Queen of the South in the following round at Tynecastle, while Stubbs, too, will be well aware of Celtic’s exit in that competition at the hands of Morton who were utimately relegated to the First Division.
He said: “Rangers, Hibs and Hearts are, no disrespect to the other teams, massive clubs. But having played for Livingston and Raith in the past couple of seaons. I know there are other very good sides and it would be wrong for those three to think it’s all about them.
“It’s going to be a very tough league to get out of, but I think it’s also going to be a great competition. Apart from the obvious results of last season, Ian Murray has done brilliantly at Dumbarton. They are part-time but they are really hard to play against, they attack you for the 90 minutes and if they lose a few goals they score a few themselves.
“Raith, as Hibs and Hearts both know, are a good team as are Falkirk, who went close to the title themselves last season, Livingston and Queen of the South. So the ‘big three,’ if you want to call them that, won’t have it all their own way.
“Every other team will be desperate to beat them every week which will make it very difficult, while the likes of Falkirk, Queen of the South and Alloa have artificial pitches whcih they are used to and Rangers, Hibs and Hearts aren’t.
“It’s not going to be a walk in the park, but it’s going to be exciting, something to look forward to and hopefully I’ll get my chance to play my part for Hibs.”