‘Have you got any questions for Alan Stubbs?” I asked one of my Jambo mates just before I set off to do my interview. “Yeah, ask him if he likes The Shadows ’cos he’s going to have to get used to living in ours.”
With that taunt still ringing in my ears, I set off into the depths of the frosty East Lothian countryside to Hibs’ secret training camp at East Mains, Thunderbirds HQ, where Stubbs and co are plotting to rescue Hibs from the Championship. I say secret because if you were piloting a Gorgie spy drone you could easily miss it. The clue is a small sign saying HTC. I’m reliably informed that’s code for Hearts Too Cocky.
I turn up early hoping to watch the team rehearsing some ingenious set-pieces but the grass is as hard as Siberian permafrost, adding to the Cold War atmosphere that hangs over both clubs when there’s still plenty to play for.
Instead I head over to the low-rise, light-green building that could be a school admin block. I settle down on a sofa and flick through back numbers of the official Champions League magazine, Champions. In the first article I learn that Messi holds the world record for a soccer skill invented in Glasgow by Jimmy Johnstone: dribbling. It’s an unfortunate name for such a miraculous, electrifying spectacle. I guess Messi’s prize for most dribbles would be the Golden Bib, probably won at Murrayfield the day he danced through the Hibees defence, as Barcelona let them off with a mere 0-6 gubbing.
I can hear whistling and laughter coming from behind the electric security doors where a team of coaches, crack nutritionists, video analysts and strength and conditioning experts are preparing the Hibs squad for glory, glory.
I settle in for a long wait when suddenly out rushes the man himself, mobile glued to his ear, saying “So, what’s the news? Good, bad, maybe, maybe not?” He disappears outside to keep the call confidential. It’s February 2, Transfer Deadline Day, the worst possible day to interview a football manager.
But when he finally reappears, Alan Stubbs is all smiles and apologies, still in his shorts and training top. He shows me into his big open-plan office and goes off to make me a cup of coffee, giving me the chance to study a battle plan on the wall plotting out Hibs’ path back to the Premiership in magic marker. If I told you what it said I’d have to kill you all, one by one.
We’re not going to discuss Alan Stubbs the cancer survivor today. The reception he got when he made his comeback for Celtic at Easter Road after the most horrific year of his life is well documented:
“When I came on in the second half it was amazing; even the Hibs fans gave me a standing ovation. It was touching, very emotional, something that will live with me for the rest of my life,” he says.
Stubbs is an emotional man. He goes deep, like one of his predecessors, Tony Mowbray. Like Mowbray, who lost his first wife, there’s a bit of sadness there all the time for his hero, dad Ronnie, who wasn’t able to beat cancer.
There are other, happier parallels. This gaffer, like Mowbray before him, has begun to place his trust in a team of gifted youngsters who aren’t afraid to express themselves. When I suggest to him that the long-suffering Hibs fans are already grateful to him for this new style, he immediately flips it on his head. He’s a humble man:
“I’m the one who’s grateful,” he says. “What an opportunity for me to stamp my own personal hallmarks on this team – honesty, integrity, respect, responsibility, hard work and fearlessness. The word failure doesn’t enter my vocabulary. I want my players to have no fear and start entertaining the supporters again. I want to get the club back where it belongs because the most important thing is that the fans can head for the stadium expecting to be entertained by a team that wins more often than they lose, and head off at ten to five with smiles on their faces, buzzing.”
There’s no need for Stubbs to be there when a 16-year-old and his parents turn up to sign for the club but he invites himself along anyway.
“Some of these boys see a lot more of me than they do of their own parents. I’m a father figure and they know they can come and talk to me about anything at all that’s going on in their lives, not just football.”
Together with chief executive Leann Dempster (or “Dumpster” as she was nicknamed when she wasted no time sacking Terry Butcher), Stubbs is passionate about the role Hibs need to start playing in the community again. “For too long it felt like the club was out of bounds to the fans. We want to open it up to them again. We have these fantastic facilities here and we want to start sharing them with deprived kids when we’re not using them,” he says.
His phone rings again and he looks nervously across at it. The clock’s ticking down and there are still deals to be done. My time’s running out too, so I try a few personal questions but this Hibs manager has a very engaging way of deflecting questions about himself – there’s no trace of an ego, just a burning appetite to succeed tempered with a down-to-earth realism that he’s only been in the hot seat for about five minutes.
Well, seven months to be exact. Seven months spent in a secret location in Portobello. Like the plot of a sitcom, the club’s three coaches, all different ages, live in the same flat together. “If you told me we’d still be in this arrangement after seven months, I’d have laughed at you. But it works fine,” he says.
I wonder how he manages without wife Mandy who’s stayed at home to be with his children, Sam and Heather?
“She knows what I want to achieve and she’s really supportive. She loved watching me as a player but she can’t watch me as a manager, she knows how much pressure there is. But pressure’s what makes me tick. Who wants to be ‘a football manager’? What’s the point of that? I want to be the best manager in Britain.”
So the stage is set. Both sets of fans would grudgingly admit that in Stubbs and Robbie Neilson, Edinburgh is finally blessed with two outstanding young coaches. The phoney war’s over. Let battle commence.
The job’s a good ’un
WE spend large parts of our day at work – so it’s important we’re not entirely miserable most of the time. A new survey by AAT has revealed the top 20 factors for working happiness in Scotland. Top was respect for employess, followed by flexible hours and understanding when children are sick.
Prize in the post
IT won Charlie the keys to his own chocolate factory – so who knows what the future holds for the first 100 customers when Aldi’s new branch in Gilmerton Road opens next Thursday.
They’ll get a golden envelope, inside which will be a ticket giving them a prize.
Dario makes a fast buck from mansion
HE returned to Scotland to rebuild his life following his split from Hollywood star wife Ashley Judd.
But now Dario Franchitti is making another fresh start after selling off his mansion.
The motor racing superstar, who hails from Bathgate, admitted that he had been left “rattling about” at Rednock House in Stirlingshire.
But don’t feel too sorry for him – he pocketed a whopping £2.7 million profit from the £4m sale.
Hendry on the ball for successful return
WHEN it comes to sport, everyone loves an underdog story.
Almost as much as they love a comeback. Following in the footsteps of George Foreman and Bjorn Borg could be seven-time world snooker champion Stephen Hendry.
The South Queensferry potter has been offered the chance
to qualify for this year’s tournament, and fellow snooker legend Jimmy White said: “Hendry could do some damage.”