Hibs Women: Behind the scenes at HTC as Dean Gibson and squad go full-time and adapt to new structure

Dean Gibson has turned sideways in his seat in the canteen at the Hibs training centre and is studying striker Nor Mustafa’s outfit.

“Is that not a fine? he asks in mock-seriousness, gesturing towards her. The Swedish striker is the only player eating breakfast in civvies rather than training kit.

The 20-year-old explains with a smile that she doesn’t want to get any food on her gear. There is laughter from the coaching staff.

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It’s a little after 8am on Monday in Ormiston and the grey rainclouds that earlier threatened to put a dampener on the day have been replaced by watery sunlight.

This is the new normal for Hibs Women since they went full-time over the summer and officially came under the club’s umbrella. The first part of the week is spent at HTC with a couple of sessions at their Meadowbank base before matches at the weekend. There are 15 players who train on a full-time basis with a handful on a part-time arrangement. One or two are juggling their football career with school or university while Rachael Boyle, who signed a new three-year deal this week, is currently on maternity leave.

On top of that, 12 new players have arrived and a clutch of key performers from last season have left for pastures new. Eight countries are represented in the playing squad – Cyprus, England, Norway, Poland, Scotland, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago and the USA – but scouting remains a bit of a minefield. As women’s football progresses – ‘moving from walking to running’, says Gibson – global recruitment has become easier but still lags behind the men’s game.

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"It’s very easy to lose hours watching potential signings,” Gibson says. “We don’t have the resources of some clubs but we can still do the work and identify players who’ll be a good fit.”

Today, it’s a fairly small group in for training; with it being the international break Cypriot pair Krystyna Freda and Eleni Giannou are still to return while Liverpool loanee Lucy Parry is still away with the England Under-19s. A few are out injured but will be doing rehab work while the remaining players will take part in an attacking-focused session.

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It has been a mixed bag of results so far for Hibs Women but Dean Gibson is treating the first four competitive games as the team's pre-season

With the players going through a warm-up in the gym, Gibson is sifting through clips from the last few matches in the conference room.

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"We’re creating chances but we’re not taking enough of them,” he says, as he studies the highlights and statistics. Once the team is finished in the gym they will come through for a short meeting.

“Normally we use this time to go over the previous game and look ahead to the next,” he tells me. “But with it being a smaller group today we’ll do a bit more preparation later on in the week – it’s more to keep a routine in place; there’s no point in doing in-depth stuff with a few of them missing.”

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The players file into the room and take their seats. Gibson repeats what he’s told me about taking chances. He flicks through the highlights, offering comments here and there: "You could have squared it there – did you see her on your left?”

Hibs Women head coach Dean Gibson with summer signing Ava Kuyken at Meadowbank
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He asks the players for their thoughts.

"Composure,” one says. “We’re getting in the right places at the right time, we just need to not rush it and making the right decision.”

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Gibson looks satisfied with the answer, and then plays a few clips as preparation for this weekend’s game. He’s focused on one particular opposition player – “everything comes through her” – but there will be more analysis later this week when the full squad is back.

One of the players comes through before the start of training and explains that she can’t take part because she has just started her period.

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Former Manchester United defender Poppy Lawson is one of a number of players to have joined Hibs Women from English football

This, along with pregnancy and maternity leave are extra factors Gibson has to contend with when selecting his team. It’s a subject that isn’t addressed all that much. Recently there was a discussion around the all-white clothing rule at Wimbledon and how this might affect women on their period, the same with test cricket uniforms.

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With Hibs Women wearing white shorts as part of their home kit it’s not unthinkable that the same concerns may be a factor.

Gibson takes it all in his stride, however. Speaking later he explains that it’s no different to the issues that can cause a player to miss a match in the men’s game.

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"In men’s football you’re normally dealing with illness, injury, or maybe personal reasons for a player missing a game or training,” he says.

"With the women’s team you add pregnancy and periods to that. Last season we experienced all of it with Rachael [Boyle] finding out she was pregnant, we had injuries to big players like Micky McAlonie and Shannon McGregor, things like that.

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"It’s just part and parcel of the women’s game.”

New signings Lucy Parry, left, and Crystal Thomas are put through their paces at HTC
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Despite a handful of players missing the session, the players head out to the AstroTurf behind the training centre.

On the pitch Strength and Conditioning Coach John Chisholm puts the outfield players through their paces while Craig warms up the goalkeepers. Eventually the goalies join up with the rest for the main part of the session while Chisholm works with a couple of players coming back from injury.

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The threatening clouds have gone, replaced by enough sun to see outer layers tossed to the side of the astro.

The drills are straightforward; small-sided teams with the aim of scoring as any goals as possible – although goalkeepers Benne Håland and Danni Kosińska are doing their best to keep the tallies down.

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After an hour or so in the heat the players make their way back to the changing room before lunch – all of them except Mustafa, who wants to do extra shooting practice, and Ava Kuyken who completes a few more runs.

Gibson is deep in discussion with Mustafa as they leave the pitch. He points out that she’s getting in the right positions to score, and the goals will come.

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She put away most of the efforts in her additional drill but still feels she might have done better. For a player who turned up for her first day with Hibs wearing a Zlatan Ibrahimovic jersey, we can get an idea of not only her footballing idol but the dedication and attitude she applies to the game.

Back in the canteen the players load up on the lunch offering – chicken and chorizo paella for most – and relax.

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Over food I chat to Craig, Gibson and Chisholm about the change in structure at Hibs and how the success of the women’s Euros has affected interest in the women’s team and the numbers of young girls wanting to follow in the footsteps of players who are becoming household names.

It’s pointed out that, while games at Easter Road are exciting for everyone involved, the key is saving them for big games like Edinburgh derbies, or matches against Celtic and Rangers.

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And, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, European matches.

Once the players have eaten they head off, but the day isn’t over yet for Gibson. He is on his way to Easter Road to work on some transfers, with the women’s window still open for a few more days.

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It’s early still in the season but Gibson is relaxed so far. Hibs have a tough run of games coming up – Aberdeen and Spartans away, and home games against Glasgow City and Rangers – but he feels the team is beginning to gel and reap the rewards of the revamped structure.

"The first few games have effectively been our pre-season,” he says, alluding to a mixed bag of results so far. It’s a more competitive league with all other teams getting stronger. Results won’t be as easy to predict as they might have been a couple of years ago.

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"People say we should have beaten Motherwell and with the amount of chances we had, we probably should have. But things have changed in the women’s game.

"Not so long ago the likes of ourselves and Glasgow City probably just needed to turn up to most games and we’d get a result. But with more teams going professional and full-time, and the quality of players across the teams has improved too.”

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He picks Motherwell as an example, given that they defeated Hibs at Meadowbank not that long ago.

“Katie Rice: five years with Glasgow City and then she was at Rangers and Hibs; Carla Boyce, Emily Mutch, Lucy Ronald were all with us recently; Leanne Crichton’s record speaks for itself, and I think most teams would be happy to have London Pollard in their ranks.”

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He goes through some of the other teams and does likewise. It’s quite eye-opening.

"Aberdeen ran Glasgow City close in their last game,” he continues.

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"The league is getting more competitive. I think it’s maybe going to go the same way as the men’s game with Celtic and Rangers going professional and having the funding to bring in better players.

"But if that happens, and they pull away from Glasgow City, there’s no reason why we can’t get closer to City, and try to kick on.”

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It’s hoped that the new structure at Hibs, with all teams coming under the one umbrella, can help boost the club to the upper echelons once again.

"The structure gives us a platform to be successful – not necessarily this season but long-term, and put Hibs back on the map in terms of Scottish women’s football,” Gibson continues.

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"It’s been a long time coming, especially the work that’s gone in to it over the last eight or nine months. When players see the facilities – even in the men’s game, not a lot of teams have what Hibs have – I think it sinks in that this is where they’re going to train and work.

"Then we show them Easter Road, and Meadowbank, and how integrated it all is.

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"I always say you can’t pick your city and for us to be in Edinburgh is brilliant.

"So the club, the city, the facilities, they’re all huge and when you add in the full-time aspect, that ticks the last box.”

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I say my goodbyes and leave the offices in Easter Road’s South Stand. Gibson’s phone has been buzzing with messages for much of the time we’ve been together and I wonder if any of them will turn out to be new signings.

Gibson is effusive in his praise for Ron Gordon and Ben Kensell, who said from the off that they were keen to integrate the women’s team into the club.

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It feels like the men and women’s teams at Hibs are going through a similar process: a huge turnover of players, the beginning of a journey to – ideally – regular success and trying to attract the best young talent from around the world.

It may not be immediate for either team but the building blocks are all there and it will be interesting following the fortunes of both over the campaign.