How head coach Alan Stubbs has built a happy Hibs
Regardless of whether or not this turns out to be Alan Stubbs' last day as Hibs head coach, now seems like a good time to take stock of his two-year Easter Road reign.
Following a period of wild Scottish Cup celebrations in Leith, the dust has gradually begun to settle on Stubbs’ highly-dramatic second season in charge. The 44-year-old Liverpudlian is locked in talks with English Championship side Rotherham United with a view to becoming their new manager. If he walks out of Easter Road today, he will be forever feted by Hibs supporters for becoming the man who finally brought the Scottish Cup back to Leith after an infamous 114-year wait.
But what of his overall tenure at Easter Road? Stubbs’ reign is a complex one to analyse because there are so many factors to consider. In normal circumstances, a club of Hibs’ stature failing twice to win promotion from the Championship would be viewed as a major blemish against the manager’s name, perhaps even worthy of “catastrophic flop” status. But these were no ordinary second-tier seasons.
In his first campaign, Stubbs, starting off amid a state of relative chaos in the aftermath of relegation, was charged with competing for promotion with Hearts and Rangers. Hearts had been planning for the Championship for several months, and duly hit the ground running, while Rangers had a vastly-superior budget and a more settled squad and got off to a fairly solid start. Hibs, by contrast, looked every inch a team who had been hastily assembled without a pre-season together and lurked around the Championship relegation zone in September 2014.
Against a backdrop of lingering off-field acrimony, the fact Stubbs managed to haul them to a second-place finish following a strong run of form from November onwards was worthy of praise, even if they were ultimately edged out in the play-offs by Rangers.
In Stubbs’ second season – the one just finished – a slack start amid the transfer saga surrounding the previous campaign’s star man Scott Allan allowed Mark Warburton’s new-look Rangers team to get a head-start and it was one they never really looked like relinquishing. Stubbs’ team made a good fist of pegging the Ibrox side back with a 17-game unbeaten run in all competitions between August and December of last year, but there was always a feeling that they were only one or two setbacks away from being ruled out of contention. When they lost to Morton, shortly after drawing at Livingston, the wheels came off the league challenge. A run of just five points from a possible 24 – Stubbs’ worst by some distance – ultimately killed off their faint title hopes and allowed Falkirk, who punched superbly above their weight under Peter Houston, to pip them to second place. Again, there was play-off disappointment for Stubbs as Hibs somehow contrived to lose 5-4 on aggregate to the battling Bairns despite looking on course to win both legs.
Logic dictated they should have finished third, at best, in Stubbs’ first season and second, at worst, in the one just finished; they did it the other way round. A summary of Stubbs’ league form would indicate that Hibs have effectively played to par throughout his two seasons and subsequently been unable to negotiate the perils of the play-offs.
There were no Hearts or Rangers-style heroics from Stubbs’ team in the Championship, but, equally, it would be harsh to deem their inability to win promotion in either season as calamitous. If the league form is used by sceptics as a stick to beat Stubbs with, highly-impressive exploits in the major cup competitions can be cited as the most obvious feather in his cap. His finishes in the League Cup and Scottish Cup over the past two seasons read: quarter-finalist, semi-finalist, runner-up, winner. In those four competitions, he saw off Premiership opponents on six occasions. No manager in Scotland has come close to presiding over such good cup form in the last two season. At a time when promotion was viewed as a priority, some insist Stubbs’ team shouldn’t have allowed the cups to become a distraction. However, it is human nature for footballers to be in thrall to the prospect of cup glory. Most managers would struggle to keep their players’ eyes on the bread and butter of second-tier football when the chance to become major cup winners arises. Certainly, with hindsight, no-one involved in the Scottish Cup triumph would swap the events of ten days ago and subsequent celebrations for promotion.
Although Stubbs hasn’t returned Hibs to the top flight, he has, perhaps more importantly than that, restored the morale of a previously beleaguered football club. For several years prior to his arrival, possibly ever since the 2007 League Cup win and certainly since John Hughes’ season in charge in 2009/10, Easter Road had become a pretty miserable place, with supporters downtrodden by stale football and a general lack of inspiration around the club.
Stubbs, starting from Hibs’ lowest modern-day ebb two years ago, has made huge strides to improve the mood of the club, both in the stands and in the dressing-room. Supporters know that, on their day, Stubbs’ team are a match for anyone in the country and, crucially had stopped turning up for derby matches filled with dread. Had they been in the Premiership this season, it is not unreasonable to predict that they would have been strong enough to finish in the top six. They simply lacked the relentless, win-every-week mentality that Rangers managed to harness from the opening day.
Stubbs created a harmonious environment for players to flourish at Easter Road. It is no coincidence that Allan, Fraser Fyvie, David Gray, Scott Robertson, Liam Craig and Dylan McGeouch all rediscovered their mojo under his charge, while the Scouser and his backroom staff have helped the likes of Lewis Stevenson, Paul Hanlon, John McGinn and Jason Cummings find the best form of their careers. When speaking to any player at Hibs, most notably when the dictaphone is off and there is no pressure for anyone to pay him lip service, it is clear that he is unanimously loved by his squad.
Stubbs’ recruitment has generally been good. In his first season, the positive impact of Gray, Allan, McGeouch and Dominique Malonga more than offset the non-contribution of Jake Sinclair and Franck Dja Djedje. Matty Kennedy, who didn’t play much, did well whenever he featured.
This season, the arrivals of McGinn, Liam Henderson, Marvin Bartley, Darren McGregor, Conrad Logan, James Keatings and Niklas Gunnarsson all strengthened the notion that Stubbs and his staff have a far better eye for a player than most of their recent predecessors at Easter Road. Anthony Stokes also came good after an underwhelming start to his second Hibs stint. Without Stubbs’ continued faith while he was struggling with match fitness and form through February and March, the on-loan Celtic forward wouldn’t have been in a position to influence the Scottish Cup final in such spectacular fashion. The likes of Henri Anier, Farid El Alagui, Adam Eckersley and Danny Carmichael were all undermined by fitness issues rather than lack of form, while Islam Feruz and Chris Dagnall were in the minority in being disappointing acquisitions.
In terms of his tactical approach, Stubbs’ decision to play almost exclusively without wingers was a bone of contention among his critics. His preference for trying to control games with an array of quality central midfielders flanked by high-energy marauding full-backs, has generally worked well. Whenever Hibs suffered a setback, the perceived lack of pace and spark in the final third was pinpointed as a flaw.
A counter-argument to this, however, would be that if Hibs had found a regular place in the team for bona fide wingers such as Sinclair, Alex Harris or Kennedy, they would have had to sacrifice one of their impressive central midfielders and would surely have relinquished a lot of the possession they enjoyed with no guarantee of a successful outcome. Generally, whether playing 3-5-2 or in a diamond formation, Stubbs’ teams have had a good balance between defending solidly and carrying an attacking threat, although, in both seasons, he could probably have done with coaxing some more goals from his midfielders to ease the burden on the likes of Cummings.
Scottish Cup victory and failed promotion bids aside, perhaps the best barometer of Stubbs’ reign at Hibs thus far is to compare and contrast the quality of the squad and the overall mood at the club over the past two seasons with what has gone before at Easter Road. Even with favourable budgets and good facilities to work from, managing Hibs has proved a thankless task for pretty much everyone bar Alex McLeish and Tony Mowbray over the last 20 years. Although they remain in the Championship, there has been a rare smile on the face of Hibs as a club for much of the past two seasons that wasn’t evident during their most recent years in the top flight.
This, allied to the fact he has undoubtedly enhanced the squad since he took the job two years ago, should ensure that Alan Stubbs will be remembered as a successful Hibs manager.
If he does leave, the Easter Road board will face a tough task in locating a figurehead equipped to galvanise the club in similarly impressive fashion.
ALAN STUBBS’ TWO SEASONS AT HIBS
League form: P 72, W 42, D 14, L 16 (win rate 58%)
Overall form: P 100, W 58, D 20, L 22 (win rate 58%)*
Longest unbeaten streak: 17 games (Aug to Dec 2015)
Longest winning streak: 9 games (Oct to Nov 2015)
Longest winless streak: 5 games (Feb to Mar 2016)
Edinburgh derby record: P 6, W 2, D 3, L1
Record v Premiership teams: P 11, W 6, D 4, L 1
Record v Rangers: P 13, W 7, D 0, L 6
Record v Falkirk: P 11, W 2, D 5, L 4
*games that went to penalties counted as draws
2014/15 League Cup: Quarter-final
2014/15 Scottish Cup: Semi-final
2015/16 League Cup: Runner-up
2015/16 Scottish Cup: Winner
Lost to Rangers in first round of Petrofac Cup in both seasons