Graham Stack, the popular former Hibs goalkeeper, is still having a blast at 35 years old.
After a rewarding experience with Indian Super League side Kerala Blasters at the tail end of 2016, the big Londoner is back in English football, having just signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with Eastleigh which will entail keeping goal and coaching the other keepers at the south-coast-based Conference Premier side.
Stack is ready for a baptism of fire when he makes his Eastleigh debut away to Championship side Brentford in the FA Cup third round this Saturday. “I’m looking forward to it – it’s close to my house, so I’ve got a lot of people coming along,” he said. “It’s going to be a very tough game. We’ve got a few out injured and suspended and Brentford are coming off a big win over Birmingham so it’s going to be a big ask for us.”
Stack intends to carve a career in coaching or management eventually, but for now his primary focus is on keeping the ball out of the net on a match-day. He has played almost 150 matches for Barnet and Kerala Blasters since leaving Hibs four and a half years ago and still feels equipped to register several more appearances for his new club before he calls time on his playing career.
“I’ve looked after myself and kept fit so I feel like I’ve got plenty left in the tank,” he said. “Apart from an injury I picked up at the end of last season, I’ve been pretty much injury-free since I left Hibs. I’d like to think I’ve got a few years left in me yet.
“I’ve been doing my badges over the last five or six years so the plan is to go into the coaching side of it when I eventually finish playing. I had a spell as first-team coach at Barnet for two years under Martin Allen, but in the immediate future I’m just focused on playing for Eastleigh and being the goalkeeping coach.”
As he kicks off life at Eastleigh, Stack is still basking in the afterglow of one of the most enlightening phases of his career after representing Kerala Blasters in the recent Indian Super League campaign, which ran from October to December. He may have only been with Kerala Blasters for four months, but, aside from being apart from his wife and four children, he loved every minute of participating in a league which also featured Florent Malouda, Diego Forlan, John Arne Riise, Didier Zokora and former Motherwell and Celtic player Stephen Pearson. Among Stack’s team-mates at Kerala, who were managed by Steve Coppell, were Aaron Hughes, the veteran Northern Irish centre-back who has been linked with Hearts, and Michael Chopra, who recently played for Alloa Athletic. They played in front of huge crowds in their 75,000-capacity stadium and made it to the final where they lost to Atletico De Kolkata after finishing second out of eight teams in the regulation 14-game season.
Explaining how the move to the south India club came about, Stack said: “I was training at Barnet in the summer because the gaffer and chairman wanted me to come back in and prove my fitness before giving me a new deal. I was playing in pre-season games and it just so happened that Steve Coppell, who I had worked with before at Reading, saw one of the games and found out I was out of contract. When I was offered a deal at Barnet in August, it coincided with me getting an offer from Kerala.
“It was a big decision because I had to decide whether to try something new and go abroad or do something I’d done for the last four years, playing for a club close to my house in a league that I knew well and with a group of players I was really close to. It was a tough one but ultimately I wanted to do something that was a bit out of the box, not just as a football experience but also as a life experience. In the end, I think it was the right thing to do.
“I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed the experience on and off the pitch. The Indian people were incredible, very friendly and very humble. I made a lot of friends there – people I played with from across the world and also people who worked at the club. I stayed in a hotel with the rest of the team for four months. I missed the family but I’m glad I made the decision to go because I may never have got the chance to do something like that again. I played in the final at the end and we lost on penalties to Calcutta. I saved the first one but unfortunately we missed the fourth and fifth spot-kick.”
Earlier in the year, Stack had been thrilled to watch from afar as a few old friends helped Hibs – a club for which he appeared 62 times between 2009 and 2012 – make history. “It was great to see them win the Scottish Cup last year, most importantly for the supporters because it was a long wait for them, well overdue,” he said. “I know Dave Gray, and he’s a cracking lad, so I was absolutely over the moon to see him get the winner. I also know Lewis Stevenson and Paul Hanlon well from playing with them at Hibs and I was very close with Stokesy [Anthony Stokes]. He lived next door to me in Canonmills and I also knew him when he was a young boy at Arsenal. I tried to look after him, which wasn’t easy! I was delighted he played such a big part in the final.”
Stack maintains a close interest in Hibs’ progress and is confident they will be back in the Premiership by the start of next season. “I think they will get up this season,” he said. “They’ve got the right manager and a good group of players. They’ve had a sticky patch recently but had a good result at Falkirk last weekend. It’s not an easy league to get out of, as the players know from their previous experiences, but I think this year, they’ll be better equipped to go up.
“They have to get up this year. A year is too much for Hibs to be in the Championship, never mind three or four years. It’s not quite the same watching Hibs on the box playing at that level. The Premiership is certainly not the same without Hibs in it because they’re an incredible club. They get a big support and bring the Edinburgh derby, which is a huge game in Scottish football, so the league will want them back as much as Hibs want to be back there.”
Although afflicted by injuries at times in his Hibs career, Stack was a regular as they finished fourth under John Hughes in the 2009/10 campaign and again in the less-memorable 2011/12 season when relegation was narrowly avoided. The goalkeeper picked up a thigh injury late in the 2012 Scottish Cup semi-final win over Aberdeen, which turned out to be his last game for the club, meaning he missed out on the subsequent 5-1 thrashing by Hearts in the final. He maintains a strong rapport with the Hibs support and still returns to Edinburgh whenever possible.
“I’d put my bond with the Hibs fans down to my character and personality more than anything I did on the pitch,” he said. “I always wore my heart on my sleeve and gave my all for the club. I had one or two bad games, as you would expect over three years, but I felt I did pretty well overall. There were quite a few goalkeepers there, but I felt I established myself as the first choice over the majority of time I was there.
“Mark Brown and Graeme Smith only really played when I was injured and Yves Makalambay didn’t play much at all while I was there. I had some injury problems when I was at Hibs, but John Hughes, Colin Calderwood and Pat Fenlon all selected me in front of the others. I’m a big character on and off the pitch and my personality probably came across to the Hibs fans. I put myself out with supporters and I think that goes a long way. I’m a football fan myself and I’ve got kids so I want to see players put themselves out there and give supporters the time of day. I think it’s nice, and it’s something I’ve always tried to do.
“I would like to get up to a game later in the season, either once our season is done or at some point when we don’t have a game. I was up last season, just before Christmas. I’ve still got friends up in Edinburgh. I was actually just on the phone to someone there, talking about Hibs for about half an hour. I miss it up there because it’s a wonderful city and I’ve got great memories from my time at Hibs.”