Bullish, purposeful, energised and brimming with belief, banter and big ideas, John Hughes was in impressive form as he was unveiled as the new manager of Livingston.
As first days at the helm go, it’s safe to say Yogi made a positive impression yesterday, with his new paymaster Gordon McDougall nodding in approval at pretty much his every utterance. It was all a far cry from the tail end of Hughes’ Hibs reign when he began to look a beaten man and was ultimately shown the door in November 2010 following a dismal start to the season. Since then, the jovial Leither has been reflecting, recharging his batteries and enhancing his football education.
But perhaps most pertinently, he has spent his sabbatical from football tightening an already strong bond with long-time friend and kindred spirit, John Collins.
Genuine football purists who both represented Hibs and Celtic as players and then had stints as manager at Easter Road, it is their alliance which saw Collins help Hughes recover from the disappointment of his Hibs sacking before leading him back into football at the Braidwood Stadium yesterday.
Collins was the man first approached by McDougall to become Livingston’s Director of Football, and he had no hesitation in recommending Hughes for the position of manager.
So enticed by the prospect of working together on a “project” – that was the buzzword at the unveiling – which centres around nurturing young home-grown talent, McDougall insisted the club didn’t have to stretch its tight budget to secure the services of these two high-profile coaches.
“You would be astonished if I were to tell you [how much they were being paid],” beamed McDougall. “These people want to be here, they’ve put the project ahead of financial gain.”
Of course, sacrificing financial gain is easier when the parties involved are already well off. Indeed, Collins, the high-roller that he is, temporarily jilted his new work colleague for yesterday’s Valentine’s Day baptism as he flew south for his Sky Sports Champions League duties. This left Yogi to “get the boiler suit back on” alone as he met his squad for the first time at Broxburn yesterday before holding court with the dozens of intrigued media folk who had turned out for his Braidwood coronation.
From the moment he sat down and scanned the assembled press, remarking with that mischievous grin of his that “it’s the same old faces,” Hughes was a beacon of vibrancy.
“We will bring success to this club,” he said. “This partnership will work. Me and John are here to build a culture. We want to instil in the players what a professional footballer should be. I said to the boys in my first meeting with them ‘you’re professional footballers by name – you’ll be here from 10.00am to 4.00pm working on your weaknesses.’ It might be too much for one or two of them but why should we lower our standards?
“We’re working with no finance, but if the players buy into what we want to do then we can be successful and turn them into good professional footballers with good values. This club’s produced a lot of good players like Graham Dorrans, Robert Snodgrass and Leigh Griffiths and we need to get back to that. I’m quite sure there’s a few more players like those in this dressingroom.
“I asked at the start of my first session, how many of them thought they could play in the SPL and only a few hands went up. I then told them what I wanted to do and what I expected of them, and when I asked them the same question at the end, most of the hands went up.
“We’re inspiring them already and that’s the job of a manager. These guys can’t fail to be inspired when they see a guy like John Collins on the training pitch. We’ve got 60 years experience in football between us and we both want to play football the right way. If these young guys don’t want to tap into that knowledge and experience, how stupid can you be?”
The two Johns have spent endless hours together at Craigielaw golf course in East Lothian, sharing their thoughts on the game and preparing for what they always hoped would be a return to football as a partnership. Hughes scoffs at the notion that Collins, whom he has known since their paths first met at Hutchison Vale Boys’ Club, may be scarred by the much-publicised player revolt which blighted his reign at Easter Road.
“I can’t speak for John, but what I would say is: what is the matter with being 100 per cent professional? If they [the Hibs players] did not want to do that, it’s a shame that John Collins was the one that suffered,” says Hughes.
“I’ve never come across a professional like John. I’m just delighted to be working with a guy of that quality and class. He’s an inspirational guy – the kind I’ve always wanted to work with. I need John Collins on my training pitch – our relationship’s that strong. My batteries weren’t charged for a good six to eight months [after leaving Hibs]. I was glad to be out of it, I wanted to take a rest and reflect. Then John stepped in and told me I had to get up in the morning, get a routine and keep it going because I couldn’t sit back and feel sorry for myself.
“I played a lot of golf with all the Saltman boys, all the pros there and there was a gang of us. Being in that environment was like being back in the dressing- room. What a laugh we used to have. Me and John would just talk football all day – we had the golfers mesmerised. I was thankful I could go and do that. That kept me going. Then I said I needed to get working again and I was down south watching games for myself, doing match reports, building up a dossier of players and teams.”
Then, in the wake of Gary Bollan’s unexpected dismissal a week past Sunday, Hughes and Collins found their perfect route back into football. It may not be the English Premier League, which both men were fleetingly linked with over the past few years, but the task of taking a well-run First Division club like Livingston to the next level on a shoestring is one that holds no end of allure.
“We’ve got carte blanche, got guys putting their trust in us,” acknowledged Hughes. “We have to build it. I did it at Falkirk, starting an academy and got people in to build it up for me. We’ll try and produce young kids and get them playing a style of football.
“Ultimately, I want to get back to these days [Hughes points behind him to a collage of Livingston high points which centres around the 2004 League Cup final triumph]. I want to get back in the SPL and get the stadium full.”
If enthusiasm alone is enough to galvanise Livingston, then the club are destined to go places under this pair. “Football’s my life – it’s all I know,” says Hughes. “And I’ve got a guy next to me in John Collins who’s exactly the same as me. He’s absolutely gutted he couldn’t be here – he’s even more excited than me about the job!”