BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
LEEANN DEMPSTER intends to create a ‘Hibernian DNA’ after revealing the capital club have been inspired by the philosophies behind the rise of English Premier League outfit Southampton.
Reflecting on a 2017 which has seen Hibs return to the Scottish Premiership following three years in the comparative wilderness of the Championship, the popular chief executive has outlined the next step for the ambitious Easter Road side.
Dempster has lifted the lid on an extensive series of scouting trips made by director of football George Craig in a bid to see how the Hibees can learn, develop and improve, including the English Football Association’s Burton base St George’s Park, Brentford, Bournemouth, Bristol City and Derby.
However, it was the Saints – where Craig’s former Falkirk colleague, Ross Wilson, is director of football operations – that blew the Hibs delegation away with joined-up thinking from playing style and youth development, to more seemingly esoteric concepts like branding.
Having been consumed by simply securing promotion to the top-flight during her first three years at the helm, Dempster says the priority is now to build a similarly successful structure at Hibs which will outlast her.
“The thing we felt when we went down to Southampton in particular was everybody in the club knew what their goal was,” said Dempster. “Everyone knew where Southampton stood, the importance of the Academy, the importance of performance.
“They had an identity that was there, even from first few minutes of being at the training centre. Even little things like the branding, it was a club working in absolute concert.
“That’s what we are aspiring to, the idea of a club DNA. So that at some point in the future when me, George [Craig], Rod [Petrie], Neil [Lennon], Sir Tom [Farmer] it leaves the club with a good structure, a good skeleton that they can continue.
“Honest to God, there is nothing we do that makes us think ‘we need to do X, Y, Z’, because we are doing all the same things – hydro-pools, tech, pitches, video clips – it’s just a different scale and we want that to run through the whole club.”
In another parallel with Hibs, Southampton rise to prominence happened followed a dramatic rethink on the back of successive relegations to League One.
Much like the Hibees, they have returned to the top-flight stronger than ever and, regardless of which players they sell – Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin, to name a few – or the fact managers Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman were poached, their structure ensures consistency.
“Southampton created that when they were ten years or so ago,” continued Dempster. “It’s about performance culture. Southampton lose players and managers but have that stability.
“You know what, it’s not rocket science but just looking at it and having an environment and having someone at the centre driving, driving and driving. I’m driving everything else in terms of first team. I am taking on that mantle; George’s mantle is all football developing footballers.”
There is, however, still appreciation of the old school after Dempster revealed that the Hibees have turned to retro football game SUBBUTEO in a bid to get their message across.
She smiled: “George came back from [England training base] St George’s Park and said to me ‘performance analysis on a screen is sometimes too quick and boys are sitting at the back and not getting it.’ So he walks up to me with a Subbuteo board! They are using that down there.
“They have the top technology, but to help the players visualise it they set it out on a Subbuteo board. I thought ‘bloody brilliant’. It is not anti-laptop, it brings the two together and it’s something George has been saying to me for ages. It’s not about making it simpler for the guys but making it more collaborative.”
For all Dempster has lofty aspirations in the long-term, success on the pitch remains paramount, with the Hibs chief targeting European football – and doing themselves justice at that level, rather than brief sojourns into the qualification rounds.
She believes the progress of Aberdeen, who defeated the Hibees 4-0 at Pittodrie on Saturday, exemplifies the benefits of regular continental competition, financially and in terms of raising standards.
“Why should a club like us not aspire to having regular European football,” she continued. “That should be where we are driving ourselves to be. If we aren’t aiming for that, then we are not doing our job properly.
“We really feel we could – and should – be operating there. We don’t have any divine right to be, obviously, but we feel with the right plan, dedication and the right decisions we can be operating right at the top of the elite environment.
“When we get into Europe we just don’t want to be a club that bounces back and forward are we saying we are going to get into the elite competitions, that’s a massive ask but what we want to do is try and compete properly.
“Look at Aberdeen, their finances are materially different because of the European competition. They have 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 that we, up until now, have been unable to do.”