Andy Holden could scarcely believe his eyes as he arrived in Edinburgh to join Alan Stubbs and John Doolan as part of the new Hibs management team.
The heavy price the Capital club had paid for the shock relegation which had sent convulsions through Easter Road were plain to see, no more so than at their training centre at East Mains.
“When I walked in,” recalled Holden. “We only had seven players, no goalkeepers.
“There were so many rooms at East Mains empty. They were bare, nothing in them and not contributing in any way to Hibernian Football Club.”
But, as he rejoins Stubbs and Doolan at English Championship outfit Rotherham, Holden reflected on the transformation wrought over the past two years, joking Hibs had gone from “seven to heaven” a reference, of course, to the final few days of their time in Edinburgh as the Scottish Cup was paraded down Leith Walk for the first time in 114 years.
He said: “Alan must take a huge chunk of credit for that. From the moment he went in, he transformed the place. He filled every room in a professional way and manner, getting the right people in, the physios, fitness coaches, video analysts, scouting networks, putting Eddie May in charge of the Academy. He deserves a pat on the back for the work he put in rebuilding the place. He resurrected it.”
Holden, however, acknowledges that would not have been possible without the backing of those above, citing the parts played by chairman Rod Petrie, chief executive Leeann Dempster and George Craig, head of football operations, in restoring the pride in a club which two years ago was in danger of tearing itself apart.
Affectionately known as “Taff” to one and all at Easter Road, the Welshman said: “Rod gave us his full backing. Win, lose or draw, he’d come in for a chat. I remember him asking one or two questions in the gaffer’s office and we said we hadn’t come up here just to dip our feet in the water but to win trophies. He said ‘That will do for me’.
“George had a massive role in it all but Leeann, in my eyes, is possibly one of the best chief execs not just in Scotland but in Britain for the manner she goes about things.
“She was continually asking the three of us ‘is there anything you need to improve?’ Top drawer.”
The ties that bind Stubbs, Doolan and Holden were forged at Everton, Taff a mentor for the big defender both as a player and as he made his first moves into coaching while Doolan worked with the Goodison Park club’s academy.
“The three of us were winners, we always tried to win every game and we drove that into the players,” said Holden. “I knew Alan and John were good coaches.”
Holden, who was at Toffees boss David Moyes shoulder for many years, recalled: “Alan would ask me every half-time what I thought. We became not just friends but from a professional point as well.
“When he retired from playing, I said ‘why not come in with me for a few days’ and he sat on my shoulder for a few months and he learned he could do it.”
Holden admitted he was surprised at the speed with which Rotherham pursued Stubbs, revealing he was actually away on holiday at the time. However, he countered, when was a good time to leave?
The 53-year-old said: “I certainly left with a heavy heart, but we’d made massive sacrifices in leaving our families for two years. It’s a long time. Mind you, we could have done a lot worse than Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful place to be, stunning. I enjoyed walks along the beach at Portobello and my wife loved coming up here. It was a wonderful experience. The people up there embraced us and there’s no doubt when I get the chance, I’ll be back up to see them.”
While Stubbs and Doolan were very much the “faces” of Hibs, Holden took something of a back seat, shunning the spotlight – “That’s just how I am” being the simple and understandable explanation – but he was as integral a part of the coaching team as anyone, Stubbs paying tribute to that unseen work hours after the trio’s finest moment at the club.
Holden said: “I’ve always just got on with things, talking to the players, telling them what’s required to be a professional football player – not just the ones who were doing well but those who were struggling a wee bit of form or not getting a game.”
Two semi-finals in the first season, two finals in the second culminating, of course, in that historic Scottish Cup triumph. provides obvious proof of a club going forward. However, much more exists behind the scenes where one can sense a vibrancy and a feelgood factor around East Mains where once there was nothing more than despondency under the dark clouds which had gathered.
“Your next question is going to be did we regret not getting promotion,” anticipated Holden, answering it before it can be asked by saying: “Of course, but it wasn’t through any lack of trying. I hope Neil Lennon can achieve promotion, I wish him all the best. The club deserves to be at the highest level and playing in Europe season after season.”
But if Holden, Stubbs and Doolan departed with that single regret, Taff insisted there’s one memory which will live with them forever – the sea of green and white he saw from the upper deck of that open-top bus.
He said: “Nothing will ever emulate that day. I’ll never see anything like that again. Believe me, I had tears in my eyes. The supporters had always been fantastic to us but the big thing for me was the crowd, it just kept getting bigger and bigger. All those people so happy, probably thinking it was something they were never going to see in their lives. It was wonderful.
“I didn’t actually realise how well we’d played on the day. Nine times out of ten I watch a game from middle to back to make sure people are in the right place. On the Sunday after the parade, I jumped in my car and drove home to North Wales. I was just desperate to spend time with my family.
“I sat down at midnight and watched the highlights. We didn’t half play well. If we’d lost after that performance I think be thinking we were jinxed for life. But we had worked on set-pieces all week and, when it mattered, young Liam Henderson put two right on the money.
“I was absolutely over the moon to see David Gray put that one in the back of the net. He puts himself on the line week in, week out for Hibs. He plays with injuries, he’s a great lad, a great captain.
“It is a smashing squad, a great bunch of boys who were never one bit of bother. Whatever they were asked to do, the did to the best of their ability. But the entire staff at the club are so professional they deserved to see us lift the cup.”