Hibs will encounter one of their most iconic players from the 1990s as they bid to end a four-game winless streak away to Raith Rovers on Saturday.
Darren Jackson has been assistant to Gary Locke at Stark’s Park since the summer and is busy plotting to compound the woes of his old club, managed by his friend Neil Lennon, this weekend. Ahead of what promises to be an intriguing showdown in Kirkcaldy, the 50-year-old took time out at Rovers’ training base in Glenrothes to reflect on a fruitful five years at Easter Road in which he scored 59 goals in more than 200 appearances.
“My time at Hibs was great,” said Jackson, who joined from Dundee United in 1992 and left for Celtic in 1997. “It was the longest time I was at any club. Scoring away to Anderlecht in the UEFA Cup [in 1992] sticks out and getting to the League Cup final against Rangers [in 1993] was also a big one for me. There were loads of highlights for me at Hibs – I couldn’t just pick out one moment.
“My second season was a low point for me. I had five years at Hibs and I felt I gave them four very good years but the second year was poor. I don’t know what it was but it just didn’t happen for me that year. But I bounced back and on the whole it was a great time and I had a great rapport with the fans.
“I didn’t get a great reception when I came back as a Celtic player, which was disappointing, but I’ve been back quite a few times over the years and I’ve always been treated well. I’ve got a lot of time for the Hibs supporters. The other day actually I was in Marks and Spencer and a young boy who worked there came up to me and said he was a mad Hibby and wanted to shake my hand. Stuff like that is really nice – it makes you feel good.”
One thing that gnawed at Jackson from his time at Hibs was the negative perception of his old manager, Alex Miller.
“I sat with Alex when I was at the Hibs v Dundee United game last week, which was good,” said Jackson. “I keep in touch with him and I’ve got a lot of time and respect for him and what he achieved at Easter Road. I found it strange that everyone thought he was defensive when he had a midfield of Michael O’Neill, Brian Hamilton, Pat McGinlay and Kevin McAllister, plus me and Keith Wright up front. I don’t think he was fully appreciated, which is very disappointing.”
Jackson’s own reputation as a Hibs icon was placed in some jeopardy when, after almost two years at Celtic in which he overcame a brain condition and played for Scotland at the 1998 World Cup, he was offered the chance to join Hearts in March 1999. Jackson insists he has never truly supported any team other than the one he is employed by at any given time, but the fact he had grown up in Leith under the influence of his Hearts-daft father Adam made the decision to move to Tynecastle an easy one.
“I didn’t have much to think about when Hearts came in for me,” he said. “I got a call from Jim Jefferies and all he said on the phone was ‘can you handle it [being an ex-Hibs player at Hearts]?’. I said ‘yes’ and then we set about making it happen. The biggest thing of all was that it made my dad’s dream come true. He was a mad Jambo. After seeing me in the green of Hibs, he obviously never thought he’d see me playing for Hearts. Seeing my dad’s reaction when I first played for Hearts was the biggest pleasure for me. I got my strip from my debut signed by all the boys and had it framed for my dad.
“He was fine with me playing for Hibs. He was from Leith and a lot of his pals were Hibs supporters so he came to every single game but I think the day I ran out at Tynecastle with a Hearts strip on made his life. My time at Hearts was great. When I first went, Hearts were near the bottom of the league but we lost only one of our last nine games and finished mid-table. In the second year we qualified for Europe and I scored nine goals.
“The Hearts fans were great with me. There was one game where I chipped Alan Combe against Dundee United and I didn’t celebrate because I’d had a few bad shouts from the crowd. Sometimes you get a bit sensitive, but on the whole the fans were absolutely brilliant with me.
“Towards the end, I had a contract issue with the club, which was horrible, but these things happen in football. I was only there for a year and a half but I loved it.”
Jackson insists he had no issues with being one of the most recognisable – and occasionally divisive – faces on the Edinburgh football scene.
“I can honestly say I’ve never had any hassle when I’ve been out in Edinburgh,” he said. “There were times when boys have maybe looked at me in a funny way but I’d just go up to them and speak to them and then suddenly they change their mind about you and decide ‘oh, he’s alright’. It was the best way to diffuse it.”
Jackson’s time at Hearts – which ended as a substitute in the 6-2 defeat by Hibs in October 2000 – represented his last notable stint as a top-level footballer. Although he always planned to go into coaching, when he eventually hung up his boots in 2002 after a spell with Clydebank, he turned his hand to being a football agent. It was one of his clients, former Celtic team-mate Jackie McNamara, who offered him the chance he craved to become first-team coach at Dundee United three and a half years ago. Locke, whom he played with at Hearts, then handed him an even more hands-on role in Kirkcaldy this summer. Jackson is savouring every moment of life as Raith’s assistant manager.
“When I finished playing, I got offered something with the agency,” he said. “Looking back I would probably rather have gone straight into the coaching but I had ten years as an agent, looking after a lot of good guys. When I got the chance to go back into football with Jackie at Dundee United, I jumped at it big time. That was my first coaching gig of any kind, so it was hard coming back into the game after so long out of it. As an agent, I was watching games every week so it wasn’t like I was totally out of it but I wasn’t looking so much at tactics and things like that.
“Now that I’m coaching, a big strong point for me is that I get in amongst the boys. I think a manager needs his assistant or first-team coach to be the go-between, and that’s a strength of mine. I still feel like I’m 18 so I can have good banter with them.
“That’s important because the way players are nowadays, you couldn’t have a Jim McLean or even a Jim Jefferies shouting and bawling at them because players can’t handle that these days. Managers have to adapt to that. Yes, there will be times when you need to go mental at them but in the main, you’ve got to make sure the players are okay and up for every game and training session. The gaffer and I have had that at Raith. We travel up from Edinburgh together and we just buzz in the car at how good this group of boys are to work with.
“Me and Lockey always got on well but we were never really close pals until now. I’d been out the game for about eight months and I was just looking to get back in. I was offered a couple of things that just weren’t right for me but when this came up, it felt 100 per cent right.
“It’s going fantastically well so far. Hopefully this is me back in football for as long as I can. After I left United, people were asking if I was going to go back to the agency but I’d never go back to that. I didn’t get the buzz of waking up every morning going to train or waking up on a Saturday with a game to look forward to.”
The buzz this week surrounds the visit of Hibs and Lennon. “Lenny was at my wedding,” he said. “I’m best pals with Tommy Johnson and we went on holiday one year and Lenny was there. We’ve been friends since then. Even though he’s been at Celtic, I think he appreciates how big and good a club Hibs is. There’s an expectation there because they’re the biggest club in the league but Lenny’s been through all that before, so he can handle it.
“We’re both passionate on the sidelines so I’m sure a few words will be exchanged on Saturday. We feel we’ve got a really good side so there’s real excitement. I don’t know whether they’ll be nervy or not but it doesn’t matter who you are, if you haven’t won in four games, you’re always going to be a bit wary going into your next game. We’re capable of beating them on our day, but the boys just need to believe. If we stand off them, they’ll destroy us. If we play the way we can and get up against them, we’ll have a real chance.”