A little over two years after vacating the scene as a freshly-crowned Scottish Cup-winning Hibs legend, Alan Stubbs is back in Scottish football aiming to restore positive momentum to a managerial path which has so far led to him being revered in Leith and ridiculed in Rotherham.
Although aged 46, the Liverpudlian remains a relative novice, with just two and a half years’ frontline experience to his name with Hibs and Rotherham United. Having been out of the game since being ditched by the Yorkshire club more than a year and a half ago, Stubbs has had plenty time to reflect on the fluctuating experiences he has been exposed to thus far.
As he undertook his first official task as boss of St Mirren when he faced the media at the Paisley 2021 Stadium yesterday, three days after being appointed successor to Jack Ross, it was clear that the former Celtic and Everton defender is intent on drawing inspiration from his two fulfilling years at Easter Road while simultaneously determined to banish any notion that his ill-fated five months in charge of Rotherham represent a more accurate reflection of his capabilities.
“Every time you start something different it’s always a fresh challenge,” said Stubbs. “Even if it’s coming off the back of success, you’re always striving to do better. I had a really good experience in my first job, I’ve had not such a good experience in my second one, so you go into this one and you’re looking to have the same impact that you had the first time around.”
Several times yesterday, Stubbs touched on the positivity of his working environment at Hibs and the contrasting difficulty he had in finding harmony at Rotherham, a club he left at the foot of the Championship with just one win and six points from 13 league matches. The manager joked that his stint in South Yorkshire should be airbrushed from history since he was in situ for such a short period.
“In terms of management I’m still young,” he said. “This is only my third job. Really, I look upon it at times as only my second job because I couldn’t really call Rotherham a job, having only been in it for three months. It was almost like I was hired part-time. Listen, it’s a good club and I’m glad they have come back up to the Championship. I wish them all the best, no hard feelings. You move on. It would be very easy for me to say it was all their fault, that they didn’t do this or that, but there’s no point. It just didn’t work out, for whatever reason, and I’m just delighted to be sitting here with another opportunity to do well at a club.”
Stubbs had admitted in a prior media engagement over the weekend that, with hindsight, he had been in too much of a rush to leave Hibs for a crack at English football. Asked yesterday at what point he realised he had erred in heading to one of the smallest clubs in the cut-throat Championship, he said: “I think it would probably be wrong for me to say when, but it was quite early. When I say I was in too much of a rush to leave, everything seemed rushed going into the job, in terms of the whole structure of the club it was difficult.
“With that type of club there wasn’t really a lot of staff and I found myself getting pulled from pillar to post, doing the wrong things when I should have been on the grass more often than not. I just felt as if I had to rebuild a club, which for me was quite surprising considering it was a Championship club.”
This appraisal of Rotherham’s structure contrasts starkly with the way Stubbs spoke about how things were at Hibs, where he was aided by chief executive Leeann Dempster and head of football operations George Craig in beginning the club’s post-relegation resurgence four years ago. “I learnt from my time at Hibs, working with good people and it just makes you appreciate how that can help you when you’re in the job,” he said.
Stubbs is not the first manager to find their career stall when making the move from Scotland to England, with Neil Lennon, Craig Levein and Derek McInnes among those who have returned north to get themselves back on track after chastening spells down south. “The grass isn’t always greener,” said Stubbs. “Obviously I’d made my decision but it’s like everything when you have certain experiences you become wiser, you appreciate the important things, what’s right. You go around clubs, you speak to people, you see managers that have done well and you hear them talking about don’t be in a rush.
“I can put myself into that category and now that I’ve had that experience I certainly won’t be in a rush going forward. So from that point of view I’ve learnt a considerable amount, even though it wasn’t a good experience I’ve learnt an awful lot from it.”
Having previously managed in a Scottish Championship which contained Hibs, Hearts and Rangers, and often got more publicity than the Premiership as a result, Stubbs is relishing his first crack of working in a league he feels is now thriving. “The profile of the league is only going in one direction, and that’s up,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just the fact that Steven Gerrard has come in this summer, I think Brendan Rodgers coming in initially was the catalyst for it. You see Steve Clarke come, and then Steven has now chosen to dip his toes in the water at a massive club.
“Suddenly, you look at Sky and the other broadcasters and there seems to be more airtime for Scottish football now, which is great and can only help generate more money in terms of sponsorship. It certainly seems as if there is a real feel-good factor around the whole Scottish game at the moment.”
Stubbs’ ambitions at St Mirren extend beyond merely avoiding relegation, although that would have to be deemed relative success given their struggles in their previous few seasons in the top flight. Having excelled with his recruitment during his time at Hibs, Stubbs will attempt to augment a Buddies squad currently light on numbers with some “exciting” new additions. He isn’t envisaging any mass invasion of those he worked with at Hibs, however. “I don’t think I can afford them!” he said. “Neil Lennon has talked about his squad, which is probably not the biggest, so I’m sure he’ll want to keep every one of what he has there. He’s got a good squad and it’s something I want to try and emulate here. We brought some really good players to Hibs when I was there. It’s something I’m conscious of doing here.
“If I can get anyone half as good as some of they turned out to be, we’ll be doing okay. But there are not many John McGinns or Dylan McGeouchs about, so I’m going to have to be a little bit creative and hopefully a little bit clever.”
Stubbs is unlikely to be taking John Doolan and Andy Holden, his two lieutenants from his two previous jobs, with him to Paisley as part of his backroom staff. “I think over the next few days there will be an announcement and I’ll be in a position to name my staff,” he said. “I am looking to go a little bit different this time. I don’t think I will be bringing my staff that I’ve had with me previously, nothing to do with anything it’s just looking at it I think I need something fresh and different.”
The Premiership fixtures will be announced this Friday. One of the first ones Stubbs will be looking out for is Hibs away. “It will be emotional going back to Easter Road because it will always have a place in my heart,” he said. “I have some fantastic memories from my time there. The relationship with Hibs is mutual, it goes both ways, so I will be looking forward to it.”