After crashing out of the Premiership in a state of disarray in 2014, George Craig was the man Hibs turned to as they sought to rebuild their football department with long-term prosperity in mind. The 58-year-old head of football operations has worked diligently in the background to implement a structure and an environment which has allowed the team’s two high-profile head coaches during his tenure, Alan Stubbs and Neil Lennon, to thrive. Just over three years into his role, the former Falkirk managing director, sat down with the Evening News to reflect on his work at Easter Road, and discuss various aspects of his job.
How would you describe your time at Hibs?
It’s been fantastic – really challenging, but exciting. Over the three years, ultimately it’s been successful so far. For a club the size of Hibernian to get relegated, the consequences could have been significant, so I’ve got to give credit to the board who probably went against what usually happens when a club gets relegated. Instead of contracting, they viewed it as a time to reflect and make positive change. That positive change costs money in terms of bringing in senior members of staff like myself and (chief executive) Leeann Dempster at a time when the club is going to be losing income. If it wasn’t for that decision, the opportunity for me wouldn’t have been created. It was then important for me and Leeann to grasp that opportunity and bring value to the club. Hopefully, so far, people are able to look at what we’ve done and say ‘yeah, that’s worked.’
Did you benefit from having a blank canvas to rebuild?
If you’re going in as head of football operations to a club that’s just won the Champions League, you’re probably scratching your head thinking ‘what can I do next?’ From a selfish perspective, going in on the back of relegation meant there was plenty for me to do. I wasn’t brought in to add to an existing structure, I was basically able to build a structure. The biggest thing I benefitted from was this terrific facility at East Mains – that gave me the platform. All I really needed to do was find the right people.
What have you been doing over the past three years?
People say to me ‘what do you do, George?’ And I say ‘it’ll probably be when I’m not here that you notice what I do.’ One of the most important things I do is to keep everything calm. I don’t coach, I don’t scout, I’m not a sports scientist. A lot of my job is done by bringing in the right people, so after that it revolves around keeping abreast of what everybody is doing. Overseeing recruitment, medicine and science, performance analysis and all the other areas within the football department from academy to first team. My own particular passion is developing young players so I find lots of things to do on that front. I’m constantly driving that process. Project Brave is taking up quite a lot of my time at the moment – it’s exciting. My main job is to provide support. The minute I try to do somebody else’s job, it’s a bad day because I’m not qualified to do it. Today, for instance, I’ve been making travel arrangements for upcoming away games and looking at replacing the surface on the 3G training pitch.
Apart from the team’s progress on the pitch, which aspects of the role have given you particular satisfaction?
When Alan Stubbs left last summer, there was a real challenge on the structure to seamlessly bring a new head coach in without having to reinvent the whole thing. In football, when you change a manager, you often find everything changes, which is always going to leave a club vulnerable. In football, it’s almost like you’re relying on the new manager to come in and tell you how to run the whole club, whereas in most other businesses, it’s the other way about. The actual company/club/business know the direction they want to take, and it’s up to them to employ the right people to go in that direction. Faced with the prospect of replacing a head coach is scary at the best of times, but when I look back now, we did that probably as seamlessly as we could. We followed all the same criteria that we had put in place when we appointed Alan, but we brought Neil, who is a very high-profile individual, into our structure, and he and Garry Parker came in almost seamlessly. Within a few weeks, you’d have hardly noticed we’d changed manager. Of course, he has a different way of doing things to Alan but it wasn’t fundamentally different. Neil didn’t suddenly want to change the way we were doing things with sports medicine and science and things like that. We weren’t having to completely reinvent, so I was very satisfied at the way that all went. I also take satisfaction from the fact we’ve not signed a player on deadline day in each of the last three transfer windows. It might seem strange that I’d pick that out but I think that’s an example of good planning. I think it’s much better to go into the last day thinking ‘if something crops up that surprises us, we can take advantage of it’ as opposed to thinking ‘we need to sign three or four players today or we’re going to have a real problem.’ It’s small things like that where I can see progress being made.
Give us an insight into your relationship with Neil Lennon.
When Neil Lennon was coming in, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think about how you were going to work with a man of his stature. Going into the first meeting, Leeann and myself wanted Neil to fit the structure but, if he didn’t, it wouldn’t have been sensible to appoint him. It wasn’t just a case of going for the guy with the biggest profile. That first meeting with Neil was almost too good to be true – it was like we’d been searching for each other all our careers. I remember explaining the structure to Neil, and he said ‘I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, George, but this is exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t want to come in and have to do everything’. I think me and Neil have a very positive working relationship. The most important thing I can do with Neil is to create the space for him to his job. It’s not Neil’s job to run this facility, he’s not a sports scientist or a groundsman. I’ve got to make sure the grass is cut and that the physios are doing their job, and then Neil doesn’t have to worry about all that stuff. At some other clubs, the manager can be involved in doing all of that. The manager is always going to be the focal point of the club but he doesn’t have to do absolutely everything. If you’re relying on him to do everything, that dilutes what you actually need him to do. Neil’s skill set is to coach, manage and motivate players. We try to make it as easy as possible for him to do that by making sure everything he needs is done.
How is the academy/development squad shaping up?
Extending (academy manager) Eddie May’s role to include the development squad was significant. Eddie initially only looked after the academy (up to age 17) but now he oversees all the development squads (up to age 21). For me, when you’re developing players, it’s important to have continuity of decision-making. When I first came in, we basically had two senior managers within the academy. As part of Project Brave, which we’ve embraced, we now have one senior manager (May) overseeing it all with Grant Murray as head of the professional academy and we’ve appointed a head of junior academy, Phillip Kidd, and a head of youth academy, Chris Smith. There should be no vertical lines between age-groups. Everybody’s embraced that, nobody more than the manager. Neil and Garry Parker watch almost every development squad game, which is crucial because a huge part of this plan is to develop our own players. That’s not easy at a club with such high expectations, but it becomes a lot easier when the head coach knows everything there is to know about the young players coming through. We’re trying to identify, recruit and develop talented young footballers. I want them to have an EH postcode. We had to assess and restructure our scouting to make sure we had eyes and ears out there and formed relationships with the terrific boys clubs in the area. Our academy isn’t a participation programme – it’s effectively a university for footballers. We don’t want to take all the players from the top boys clubs just for the sake of it – we only want them if they are exceptional and have got a real chance. One of the targets we give to the recruitment department is to know the top 12 players in Edinburgh born in each year. Of those 12 players, I’d like to think we’ve identified all 12. Then after that, we look at how many we’ve been able to recruit. Hearts are our main rivals for players, and they should be our only rivals since we’re looking for players in Edinburgh and the Borders. We want to make geography work for us because Rangers and Celtic have to convince the parents of Edinburgh-born players that going through to Glasgow four times a week is better than coming to us. I’m very encouraged by the number of top players in the area we’ve managed to recruit. If we don’t recruit good players, no matter how good the coaches are, we’ll always struggle. We basically intend to recruit the best young players in Edinburgh and put them into an environment where, technically and tactically, they can get the best information possible and, physically, they get the best preparation possible. If you have good players and good coaches, you’ve got half a chance.
Are you pleased with the number of young players in the first-team picture?
We operate to a basis that we have a first-team squad with 20 outfield players and three goalkeepers. That’s not a big amount so all 20 players have to be able to contribute. We will measure the success of our player development programme on how many of those places are filled on merit by developing our own players. Four of those 20 places are currently taken by Fraser Murray, Oli Shaw, Ryan Porteous and Scott Martin. Any time they are called upon, they’ve got to be ready to step in. Otherwise, we’ve just got them there for window dressing. I can’t afford to be dressing windows when Neil Lennon’s job could potentially depend on it.
Are you effectively Hibs’ director of football?
Yes, I probably am. Football is the same as any other business - you need to have clearly defined roles so people understand exactly what they’re doing within a structure. The problem arises when that’s clouded. I don’t think the title is the problem. I keep hearing people say ‘what does a director of football do?’ You could call me head of football operations or director of football or you could just call me George. Ultimately, people who work with me will judge me on how good I am at doing my job, and supporters will probably collectively say ‘well, while George was here, we had some decent results, so he did okay.’ To do what I do, it attracts less attention because I don’t have the same football profile perhaps as Craig Levein or any other people in my position who have actually played the game or managed at a high level. There’s less spotlight. That’s not to say Craig and I don’t have a lot of similar skills. If I’m sitting with a manager, with my background, he’s not going to have the slightest bit of concern about ever losing his job to me because I just couldn’t do it. I will only give an opinion about a specific area of expertise if I’m asked by the staff. I ask questions, but that’s only so I have the knowledge. The day I walk in to Neil’s office and say ‘I think we should play 4-3-3’, that’s it all over. That’s not going to happen. Having said that, all of the managers I’ve worked with have asked my opinion or advice at some point, but that’s usually about how to deal with a situation rather than about the shape of the team or anything like that.
Is everything going to plan?
Yes, I think it is. In some instances, we’re ahead of plan. I’ve set out to implement an overall unifying strategy. It’s about believing in the plan, getting good people in place and sticking to the plan. We’ve got a settled staff and I’m really happy with my department heads. I don’t want us to get carried away but I can see progress.