Leeann Dempster: I want success to be in Hibs' DNA
From being beaten by the likes of Alloa and Dumbarton to battling it out at the top of the Premiership table, going toe-to-toe with champions Celtic, it's been some journey for Hibs over the past few years.
Back among the big boys, that 114-year Scottish Cup hoodoo finally gone and now with season ticket sales at record levels and Easter Road bursting at the seams, chief executive Leeann Dempster could be tempted to think “job done” as she reflects on the remarkable transformation she has overseen.
While Dempster would be the first to insist there are many others who should rightly share the credit, there’s little doubt that she was the catalyst to turn a club which was on its knees, threatening to implode upon itself as the stark reality of relegation sank in.
However, far from resting on her laurels, Dempster is determined to drive Hibs onto another level, to deliver a football club which will stand the test of time, one which will not only enjoy regular European football but compete at that level long after she and many of today’s supporters are long gone.
Recently Dempster, head of football operations George Craig and others have traipsed the length and breadth of the country visiting numerous clubs and St George’s Park, the £105 million home to England’s 28 national sides, measuring what they have to offer against their own.
And, she insisted, that while it may surprise some, they’ve come away from those trips – which have also included Southampton, Bournemouth, Brentford, Derby County and Bristol City – believing that the structure now in place at Easter Road matches anything anywhere else.
She said: “We’ve seen what elite stuff they do, what their performance environment is like and we’ve come away thinking there’s nothing, honest to God, nothing, that’s made us think we need to do x, y or z because we are doing all the same things.
“It’s just a different scale. We came back up the road from Southampton, they had the swimming pool, they had the pitches but we have our hydro pool that does the same things, we have all our facilities that do the same things.
“They have many more people and everything looks better and shinier, it’s a superb-looking environment but we didn’t come leave saying we need to do this, this and this. We’ve tested our football structure and it’s come through that test with flying colours.”
Dempster revealed Hibs intend to conduct remedial work on the pitches at their East Mains training centre, replace the artificial surface and, longer-term, build an indoor arena – something only Celtic and Rangers currently boast.
But with HTC “built and paid for” as is Easter Road, Dempster insisted that allowed the club to focus purely on football, developing a “DNA”, a philosophy robust enough to stand the test of time.
She said: “The thing we felt at Southampton in particular was everybody in the club knew what their goal was, everyone knew where Southampton stood, the importance of the Academy, the importance of performance.
“They had an identity that was there, even from the first few minutes of being at the training centre. It’s not just the branding of things, it was a club working in absolute concert together, knowing exactly where they are going. That’s what we are aspiring to.”
And part of that DNA, insisted Dempster, should be regular European football for a club which led the way in that field.
Pointing to how Aberdeen’s finances have benefited hugely from their involvement at that level in recent years, she said: “Why should a club like us not aspire to having regular European football? That should be part of where we are driving ourselves to be.
“What does it mean to get regular European football? It means if somebody who finishes above you wins the cup, finishing fourth or above. But that’s achievable, more than achievable for a club of our size and structure.
“If we aren’t aiming for that then we are not doing our job properly, We really feel we could be operating and should be operating there. We don’t have any right to be, but we feel with the right plan, dedication and making the right decisions we can be operating right at the top of the elite environment.
“Do we think we’ll win the Scottish Cup again to get into Europe, why not? And when we get into Europe we don’t want to be a club that bounces back and forward. What we want to do is try and compete properly, not just the first round.
“We want to get through and try to challenge and we think over the course of our time in this club we can do that, it will be a core target for us.
“Look at Aberdeen. Their finances are materially different because of European competition. They’ve added on a significant sum with the rounds they have had in the last couple of years and that’s allowed them on the footballing front to do, what we, up until now, have been unable to do.”
In order to achieve that goal, Dempster insisted Hibs have to be in a position to seize any advantage they can from their competitors, saying: “It’s not just on the field but everywhere else, looking for the gaps and trying to take advantage of those gaps.
“It’s like anything in life, you look at what your competitors have to do. Thanks to the foresight which saw a training centre and stadium built and paid for before us we only have to focus on the club and football.
“Our competitors have other things to focus their minds on. I think with, not always the right decisions, but trying to make better decisions that should give us an opportunity.”
And, claimed Dempster, she wants to see those opportunities grasped by playing a particular brand of football.
She said: “It’s important not just for now that everyone understands how we want to play, that when we are looking for a player that’s the type of player we want to recruit at every level.”
“We have plans not just to produce some of the best players but to get some of those that are not ours and get them to Hibs.
“We want to be the leading development Academy in Scotland. We do not only want to recruit, we want to give young players the best opportunity to realise their potential.
“But the value of player trading should not be under-estimated, but we have to do it under our control, professionally if that helps to build that financial resilience. Opportunities will open up and we need to be able to take advantage of every opportunity that comes towards us, whether that is in the United Kingdom or abroad.”