It was a full house in Whelahans last night as The Hibs Club welcomed Paul Heckingbottom and Robbie Stockdale to Sunnyside for a question and answer session.
Setting the scene
Speaking to our moderator for the evening, St Patrick’s Branch chairman Dougie McLeod, Paul revealed that football wasn’t something he took particularly seriously until Manchester United signed him as a youth player. At Old Trafford, exposure to legendary coach Eric Harrison and members of the famous “Class of ’92” convinced him that a life in the game was the right choice.
From there Paul got to “live every fan’s dream” with his local club Barnsley, both as a player and as the manager who led them to their first ever trophy win at Wembley.
Robbie’s route to the first team with his local heroes was more straight forward – joining Middlesborough at eight or nine and progressing to the first team. Robbie’s journey, of course, included the highs of making five appearances for Scotland, “maybe five too many, for some of you Scotland fans.”
For all the highs a career in football can bring, there also lows to contend with. Although Robbie indicated that Paul would be more qualified to answer those questions because “I’ve never really been sacked and he has.”
How did Paul and Robbie end up at Hibs? A friendship formed over a number of years, including doing their coaching qualifications together, had led to them deciding to work together.
Hibs were not their first option. But we were their first choice. Robbie revealed that Paul was approached by a number of clubs but held out to wait for the club that offered the best fit with his approach to the game.
That choice was Hibs.
Speaking to managers who had worked with Leeann Dempster and George Craig before formed part of their “homework” – although Paul didn’t speak to Neil Lennon until after he’d joined the club.
Those discussions were overwhelmingly positive, with Paul confirming that he has never experienced joining a club with such strong, positive structures in place.
Even then they weren’t quite prepared for the size and support that Hibs have, with Paul admitting that it “has blown their minds.”
Mentioning in particular the away support at Livingston and Tynecastle, Paul noted that the fans are very much “the life and soul” of the football club.
And, yes, the player’s were given an extra day off to celebrate their away derby win. Although, given their performance in training when they did come back to work, that might not happen again!
Charlotte takes over
Of the many questions we received for Paul and Robbie from people who couldn’t attend on the night, few had put more thought into their contributions than Charlotte, aged 10.
“Who is late for training?” Well, Charlotte, we can reveal that our players are very good timekeepers – although an internal fines system adjudicated by Sir David Gray helps keep everyone in line and on time.
After hearing a number of suggestions from the floor, Paul and Robbie eventually agreed that Darren McGregor is the best looking player at Easter Road. We will spare the blushes of Daryl Horgan, Martin Boyle and Stéphane Oméonga’s new ‘tache by not revealing who was rated the worst looking player.
Working in tandem as ever, Robbie chose Harry Kane as his dream signing while Paul opted for Kevin De Bruyne to keep Harry supplied with goalscoring chances.
As for Dylan McGeouch’s return to Easter Road – “he’s someone we’ve discussed.”
Developing future stars
It’s clear listening to both Paul and Robbie how much bringing young players through to the first team means to them. And heartening to hear them both speak about the quality of the players we have throughout the different age groups at Hibs.
Speaking about the highs of his time in the game, Robbie said seeing young players he’s worked with make it to the top gives him as much pleasure as his own milestones as a player while Paul mentioned his pride at seeing John Stones star for England at the last World Cup.
They plan to continue that work at Easter Road with young players given their chance to shine when they are ready. Paul noted the benefits of recent development squad friendlies against English opposition, with the games offering a higher standard and a better test than many of the regular season games.
Young players will continue to go out on loan, although every deal will be scrutinised to ensure it is the best move for the player’s continuing development.
Unfortunately for Forza Fred, Paul feels there are better options closer to home than Australia. Although Robbie did volunteer to accompany any player heading down under for a loan spell!
Robbie noted that he worked with four very different managers at Sunderland, but the responsibilities he shares with Paul mean that he has a much more important role at Hibs.
Taking over towards the end of a season, with the transfer window already closed, has forced Paul to take two different approaches to the job.
In the short term that has meant focusing on things that could be changed, from challenging the squad and staff to involving players in a rebranding of the training centre. (Although, Robbie pointed out, East Mains remains “bloody windy.”)
With that short term job almost done with the season finishing with a home match against Aberdeen tomorrow, the focus will move to the longer term challenge of managing the turnaround of the playing squad and ensuring sustained success on the pitch.
The transfer window
Paul and Robbie know their budget and are happy with it. They have targets in mind and are working closely with the recruitment staff to get those deals done.
They have met with Scott Allan and outlined their vision for the way Hibs play and how he will fit into that vision. They are excited to be working with Scott and he is looking forward to getting back to Easter Road.
The aim is to have two players for every position, with the development squad offering further backup and additional competition. The focus for the summer transfer window will be on quality over quantity.
The squad can be improved “all over.” That is not a dig at any individuals – players can always improve, and it is Paul and Robbie’s responsibility to constantly challenge the players and staff to make sure they are improving all the time.
Loan deals will remain an option, but not a first choice. If some summer targets fail to land, then loan deals offer the opportunity to bring in someone with the quality to improve the team.
For Paul, dealing with players is the best part of being a manager. That’s particularly true at Easter Road where there are so many players in the squad who just love being at Hibs. Those players offer leadership in different ways and the fans are lucky to have them.
As to how his refashioned Hibs team will play, Paul noted that “high pressing” doesn’t mean bypassing the midfield or playing the long ball. Citing Manchester City and Barcelona as examples, he pointed out that the high press allows you to win the ball back as quickly as possible. And you can only play the football you want to play when you have the ball.
Despite much prompting, Paul refused to give any clues about team selection so didn’t let us know if Marvin Bartley “will be given a shot in the team on Sunday.”
He was much more forthcoming in paying tribute to the impact Marvin has around the training centre and within the squad. A “big character and a great guy” it will be important for other players to fill that gap once Marvin has left to join Livingston.
Looking to the future
What does success mean for Hibs?
For Paul the answer is European football and cup wins. He’ll continually drive the players to over achieve, league positions shouldn’t be defined by the size of budgets but by the desire of the players and staff to over achieve.
It has been a good start but Hibs are fifth, the ambition for Paul will always be to be higher than fifth. Encouragingly, with everything in place off the field, he sees a big opportunity for the summer transfer window to be the start of something exciting for the players and the fans.
The hard work will begin in the summer and the short break in Scotland has been something of a shock for our management team. That makes pre season more of a challenge than it is England, and they have worked closely with our medical and sports science staff to ensure that the squad will be properly prepared for the season ahead.
And, spoiler alert ahead of an official announcement, fans will get the chance to see how those preparations are coming along with friendlies against Arbroath, Dunfermline and Carlisle on July 3, 6 and 9.
Thanks again to Paul and Robbie for joining us last night, Dougie McLeod for chairing the event, the members for coming along and Kenny Millar for all his support in organising the evening.