Alan Combe is taking massive satisfaction from the ongoing development of Mark Oxley and expects the Hibs goalkeeper to flourish significantly in the coming years.
Although 25 years old, the Yorkshireman can still be considered a relative rookie given that he had only one season as a regular – on loan at Oldham Athletic – prior to arriving at Easter Road 17 months ago.
Since pitching up in Edinburgh – initially on loan from Hull City before signing a permanent contract – he has established himself as Hibs’ No.1. Goalkeeping coach Combe, who has worked with Oxley daily in this time, has witnessed at close quarters how he has grown in stature and believes that he is only going to continue improving on form which, notwithstanding last weekend’s lapse against Falkirk, has allowed him to keep 11 clean sheets in 21 competitive matches this season.
“The big man’s been fantastic,” declared Combe. “I thought he did well last year, and we were happy to get him back. He’s really stepped up to the plate this season – he’s improved a lot. He’s just turned 25, so he’s still learning the game. You never stop learning as a goalkeeper. There’s such a long way for him to go but he’ll just keep on getting better and better, in my opinion.
“He’s admitted himself that getting in the team and playing every Saturday has helped him massively. It helps that he’s a likeable character and is part of a squad that gets on so well.
He’s got all the attributes, although there are aspects we need to work on. We’re very happy with how he’s coming along though.”
With Hibs dominating many matches in the Championship this season, Oxley’s trademark has become pulling off eye-catching one-off saves at times when his workload is otherwise minimal. Although this quality temporarily eluded him last weekend, the Englishman has generally dealt well with long periods of relative inactivity.
“When he’s needed to be called upon, he’s performed,” said Combe. “If we’re truthful, he doesn’t have a lot to do in matches because the team have been doing so well. One of the things he’s having to deal with at the moment is the fact he’s not having many shots to save in each game. You can’t work on that in training, so the only way he can work on it is in games themselves. You learn game by game how to deal with those situations, and he’s dealt with it admirably over the last few months.
“Goalies prefer having lots of saves to make. The top, top goalies are the ones that aren’t expected to do anything for a long time and then they pull off a great save. The key thing for any top goalie is to be able to marry making one-off saves, with making lots of saves when called upon. If you can get that, you’ve got a special goalie.
“There are times when you wish you were flying about making saves all the time because that’s your job, but at the same time if you ask any goalie, they’d be happy if they just touch the ball a few times in a game and keep a clean sheet, and Mark is generally doing that just now. As a group, the team seem to have cut out the silly goals. Mark and the defence have got a real sturdiness about them now.”
Aside from keeping the ball out, Combe believes Oxley also plays a big part in Hibs getting on the front foot. “He’s a fantastic kicker of the ball and his distribution is great,” he said. “As a coach, you’ve got to work on his negative side, but you also have to work on his positives as well because he’s so crucial to how the team play. The amount of attacks he sets up with his distribution is great. It’s a real asset.”
In his previous job as Hearts’ goalkeeping coach, Combe, 41, worked with Jamie MacDonald, who, like Oxley, had to wait well into his 20s before he began to establish himself. “Jamie and Mark are totally different goalkeepers,” he said. “But Jamie had to wait his chance with numerous goalkeepers in front of him and went out on loan the same as Mark did. When his chance came he took it, and did really well at Hearts. Mark will do the same here.
“He’s just needed to go to a team where he’s going to play every week, and so far he’s had that. He’s deserving of playing every week. You see him in training every day and he deserves clean sheets and good results and performances on a Saturday. Him and Toni [Reguero] both work their socks off in training and want to improve.”
Although Reguero is yet to appear for Hibs since signing in the summer, Combe is delighted with the contribution of the second-choice keeper. “Toni’s done fine,” he said. “He’s working away behind the scenes. He knew the situation when he came here. He’s got experience and that’s what we were looking for. It’s hard to get someone in who is not going to be the No.1 – you need to get the right character in for that, and he’s helped Mark an awful lot. He’s first to say ‘well done’ to Mark after games or after training. You’ll see him screaming ‘well done’ to Mark from the dugout when he makes a save. He’s a great character.”
Combe, who has been leaving his home at 4.30am to make training since the Forth Road Bridge closed, is keen to ensure a happy working environment for Oxley, Reguero and Under-20s keeper Sean Brennan. “I like to have a good relationship with all the goalkeepers,” he said. “The best times I had with my coaches were when I was having a good laugh. It was all about hard work and making sure it was constructive to a Saturday, but it also had to be enjoyable, and that’s the way I try and work it.”
Combe also has a strong bond with head coach Alan Stubbs and his assistants John Doolan and Andy Holden. This was a big factor in the boyhood Hibs fan resisting the advances of his friend and former Kilmarnock and Hearts colleague, Gary Locke, who wanted to take him to Rugby Park as his assistant in the summer.
“It was very flattering that he asked me but I felt at the time as if something special was happening at Hibs,” he said. “It’s taken me a long time to get here and I didn’t want to just leave that after a year. I think the club is going somewhere and Alan, Taff and John are brilliant to work with. From the moment I came in, they were brilliant with me. They’re a good laugh as well – John Doolan could do with a bit better patter, right enough. Sometimes you need a translator for him.
“Their attention to detail is incredible. They know every player we’re playing against. I can pick a random number, say Raith Rovers’ No.8, and John Doolan will tell me who it is within two seconds.
“The Killie thing was tempting, but I just thought to myself, I’m a goalie coach, I’m happy what I’m doing, I’m happy where I am and I’m happy who I’m working with. Maybe further down the line, if things don’t work out for me, I’d consider becoming an assistant, but right now I’m delighted where I am. The fact I’m a Hibs supporter gives me an extra buzz. It’s a great place to work and I thoroughly enjoy driving in in the morning. I want to give it everything I’ve got to make sure I stay here.”
Part of this enjoyment stems from the fact he is able to leap about the training fields of East Mains and relive a playing career which took in, most notably, Dundee United, Bradford City and Kilmarnock before fizzling out at Morton almost four years ago. “I still take part in training myself – I love diving about in the mud and I love the aches and pains the next day,” he said. “I got man of the match for the Under-20s against Celtic last season. They had five internationalists playing that day, but still the gaffer told me to hang up my gloves. I was just helping out because we were short of keepers. I think I could still play but I couldn’t train every day. I miss playing unbelievably – I still get the game head on when I’m out training. I’ll be out there shouting at the young boys and I still hate losing a goal. When you’ve got that in you, it never leaves you. You’ll never beat playing, but this is the next best thing. I absolutely love coming into my work every day.”
Combe explained that being a goalkeeping coach means he often has to ignore Hibs’ swashbuckling attacking play. “I watch the game differently to everyone else because I need to concentrate more on the keeper, and the defensive stuff,” he said. “Other people might be getting excited when we’re attacking, but at that point I’m looking to see where my goalie is and checking he’s got his defence organised. If we score, I usually end up watching it back on the video later. It’s a totally different outlook. I’ll always celebrate when we score but because I’m watching the defensive end of the pitch, it’s always a delayed reaction from me!”