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Alan Stubbs:'Football prepared me for what lay ahead'

WHAT does football make of the man?

IN CHARGE: Alan Stubbs puts his new Hibernian charges through their paces at Easter Road. Picture: SNS
IN CHARGE: Alan Stubbs puts his new Hibernian charges through their paces at Easter Road. Picture: SNS

And what does the man make of football? It might be supposed that Alan Stubbs has little time for reflection as he embarks on his biggest professional challenge by taking on the head coach role at Hibernian, a club that has the same record with managers as Jonah has with ships.

However, Stubbs, at 42, has a singular, life-changing experience and he has enough of a hinterland outside football to make him an engaging, informative conversationalist on how sport has the ability to mould character and thus help the individual absorb the trials of life.

Stubbs is a cancer survivor. He is not afraid to talk about his ordeal with testicular cancer in 1999 and eager to bring his experience to sufferers.

This week he will appear in a documentary in which the former Celtic player returns to Glasgow, showing how he was supported through his crisis, particularly by his team-mates.

It also tells the stories of two Glaswegian teenagers who have benefited from charitable support in their own battles against the disease. It shows how CLIC Sargant helps youngsters battling cancer retain a sense of reality.

This normality has always been part of Stubbs. He was born the youngest of five children to a working-class family in Kirkby, Liverpool, and he has not lost that sense of wonder or humour at what life has thrown at him.

Asked when he first thought he would make it as a player, he replies deadpan: "Probably when I was 28.''

The truth is that Stubbs was a precocious talent, signed by Everton, at 10, but he has been tested professionally as well as physically. His father, a foreman with a tobacco company, took him to his playing duties by road and rail. "He wasn't a driver,'' says Stubbs. "We did not have an awful lot but we did have a big bit of grass and the back that stretched to about 20 pitches.''

Stubbs believes he was no different then to any other young boy in his area. He was, though. His early signing by Everton was no accident.

It was then that he had another experience that would mould him. "I was released three years later at the age of 13 and that is when the doubts start to creep in. You say to yourself: 'Can I make it in this game?'''

These concerns were partially lifted when Stubbs signed a full-time contract with Bolton Wanderers at 17 and was in the first team a year later. He started his professional career in 1989 and ended it with a knee injury in 2008.

Rejected at 13, wondering for most of his teenage years if he had a future in football. This seems a recipe for neurosis or cynicism, perhaps both.

Stubbs is clear-eyed about reality. "It basically is like a gravy train. You are on a conveyor belt and there are people wanting to stay on it longer than you. It is dog eat dog. It is not necessarily the best ones who stay on the conveyor belt longest.

"There is luck involved, the right place, someone gets injured, a manager gets sacked, one manager likes you more than another. I know for a fact that there were players better than me from age of nine through 14 that never made it.''

He adds: "It comes down to how badly do you want it. We are all different psychologically and emotionally but rejection can be a devastating blow. One person's opinion can basically change the course of your life. And it is not necessarily the right opinion.''

This volatile mixture of fate, fortune and bias is besetting the Stubbs family now. Sam, his 15-year-old son, is a defender at Wigan Athletic.

"We all know the riches involved in being a top footballer but it is a test of character too. You are in an environment where you have to perform day in and day out and prosper under pressure.

"There is stress or anxiety, particularly in the early part of your career. It is not all rosy all the time."

Football, indirectly, may have saved his life. A routine drugs test showed he was suffering from cancer. Football, too, helped him recover. "My experiences as a professional stood me in good stead for what I had to go through,'' he says. "Mentally I always felt I was a strong individual but obviously the news that I had cancer … well, nothing prepares you for that.

"If I said that I dealt with it really well I would be lying. I took a step back. I buckled at the knees.

"But football helped me to prepare for what lay ahead. The trials and tribulations of going through chemotherapy were helped by being part of a team, of having just the will to go on, the desire to come back and be with my mates. Yeah, the things that I had experienced up to that age really helped. "

Predictably, it changed his outlook on life. He was once easy-going; now he has a focus that stretches beyond the playing field.

"My philosophy is to be the best I can be. I come in to work, enjoy what I can, try to pass on my life experience and try to inspire people. I want to inspire people.''

This is an ambition of the highest level but Stubbs does not baulk at it. "Some people find being a leader easy. Some of the attributes come naturally. I feel I can be a leader. I want to show people leadership.''

Yet he does not believe management is a place for dictatorship. He has been blessed by working under such as David Moyes, Roberto Martinez and Walter Smith but he insists that he has to bring his own personality to the fore at Easter Road.

Hibs, relegated in a shambolic end to the season, dispensed with playing staff and the managerial team of Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas. Stubbs is now charged with taking the team back to the top division. He will go about the task in his individualistic way.

"I want people to express themselves. I want people to have an opinion. I want people to learn from me. I want to learn from them,'' he says. "I do not want my players to be like robots. I want them to have personalities. I want them to have an input. I want them to express themselves on the pitch and off the pitch. I want their personalities to shine through."

This is excellent news for those such as Alex Harris, Sam Stanton and Scott Allan whose talent has to be reinforced by constant encouragement.

Stubbs points that his policy of honesty stretches to telling players not "to go down easily'', adding: "I do not want to see players trying to cheat other players on the pitch.''

The documentary this week is made under the auspices of BT Sport and The Supporters Club. The latter's purpose is to help bring people together through sport and raises money by offering subscribers the chance to make a monthly donation that will be used for charity.

This has so far been used to fund 18 sport-inspired community projects - 10 in the UK and eight overseas, with more than 82,000 people now signed up to the initiative.

Stubbs, too, is determined to forge a link with supporters at Hibs. "Players will attend supporters functions and I will seek to find out what the fans want, what are their concerns. There has to be a connection made and maintained.''

He is aware that Easter Road has recently been a place where managers have failed spectacularly.

Is it crass to suggest that his battle with cancer has made him more confident he can handle what is thrown at him?

"My past has helped me,'' he says. "A lot of people would have been afraid of this job. But that appealed to me. I realised it was a fantastic opportunity. Something is only daunting if you have not prepared for it.''

That preparation began on the playing fields of Kirkby and has continued through the big arenas and the more anonymous hospital wards.

Stubbs is ready for Easter Road.

Supporters United, featuring Alan Stubbs, focuses on the work of the UK's leading cancer charity for children and young people, CLIC Sargent, which is one of the beneficiaries of BT Sport's The Supporters Club. The documentary premieres on Thursday August 7, at 6.30pm, on BT Sport 1

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