Hibs boss and fashion lover Jack Ross on being dressed for success and his dream of managing Scotland
Easter Road manager on why he’s not thinking about the Hearts semi-final just yet and why he stays away from social media
Phew, that was close. My temperature has been checked, just like Martin Boyle, Christian Doidge and the Scottish Cup godhead “Sir” David Gray, and I’ve been pronounced fit enough to meet the Hibernian manager, Jack Ross. But a nagging issue remains: will I be dapper enough?
The lockdown slobbers simply won’t do so I smarten up for the chat with surely the best-dressed football manager in Scotland, a walking GQ smart-casual supplement, a trailblazer in technical-area couture not involving actual blazers, the scourge of duvet-coat manufacturers and a man seemingly intent on out-Pepping Pep.
But there are no super-tight trews today, no modern twists on the Nehru jacket. A training session just completed at Hibs’ East Mains complex so Ross sports a tracksuit top, shorts and the socks-and-sandals combo that only retirees on a Costa Brava winter-sun break can reasonably pull off. Let’s stick with his sartorial style, though, because he seems pleased I’ve mentioned it.
“I’ve always loved fashion,” he declares. “When I was younger I didn’t drink until I was 23 in the hope that would help my football, although funnily enough I think I became a better player when I started having a few beers. Anyway, I was the designated driver for my mates in those days and all my money would be spent on clothes. This was Glasgow and really the reason I moved there from Falkirk, where I grew up, was its reputation for good style.
“Some people aren’t bothered about dressing well and my assistant manager [John Potter] would be a particularly good, or bad, example of that. My biggest fashion disaster? There was a lads’ holiday to Gran Canaria in 1998 when I turned up at the airport in an Italian national team shellsuit. What can I say? They were big at the time.
“I try not to be obsessive about clothes but official club gear can be a problem. They’ve gotten mad at some of the places I’ve worked for being reluctant to put it on. Sunderland came up with a special tie for going to Wembley for the Checkatrade Trophy final but I’m afraid I didn’t like it. I say I don’t over-think this … maybe I did then!”
So how does he rate the Guardiola look? “I like it, though if you’re as successful as him you can pull off anything.” That’s a good point: the manager who cuts a dash on the touchline must hope his team perform accordingly, otherwise he’ll look a bit daft. Thankfully for him Hibs have made an impressive start to 2020-21. “I’d have got pelters if we hadn’t,” he says, adding: “That’s what we’re like in Scotland.”
In case you’re wondering if Gok Wan has suddenly gatecrashed the Saturday Interview I should state Ross’s credentials as a football man. He’s already mentioned his early abstemiousness in pursuit of a career and before that there were his days as a fan, which he says were “peculiar”, but certainly don’t lack authenticity.
“I never supported a senior club. My background was junior football and the Scotland national team. My grandparents lived in the same street as Camelon Juniors’ ground and I loved family outings to games for being able to run on to the park at half-time and fetch the ball for the goalkeepers. Then when I was a bit older my dad took me to Hampden. The car journey got exciting when the Whyte & Mackay building at Stepps came into view.”
And Ross, who would first become a player with Camelon, adds this: “People might say they love football but I reckon I’m in love with it. There’s a difference and it was explained to me by Tony Higgins. He was wondering about an opportunity to manage Stranraer when a highly-regarded figure – it might have been Sir Alex Ferguson – asked him if he loved the game. ‘Of course,’ said Tony. ‘Yes, but are you in love with it?’ ‘Isn’t that the same thing?’ said Tony. He was told it wasn’t and, being a smart guy, he concluded that he wasn’t quite in love with football. But I would say I am.” So what does wife Heather say to that? “She knows what I’m like.”
At four years old Ross’s recurring dream was of packed stadia and rocket shots. At 44 he’s in charge of a club he thinks is a good fit like one of his jackets. Many Hibee favourites such Higgins have flitted through his life. That childhood dream would later be refined to running on to the park for Scotland. “I never made it as a player,” he says, “but if you ask me about my ambition now it would be to one day manage my country.” Before then, though, he has work to do at Easter Road.
What score out of ten would the green-and-white faithful award him after ten months at the helm? Maybe seven, though defeat last time out to Aberdeen caused some wailing from the social media melodramatists. Ross steers well clear of Twitter and suchlike. “We live in a world right now where – foolishly in my view – every opinion is given credence, not just in football but across society. I understand emotion, it’s in football, but while a manager cannot be emotionless he must to an extent detach himself. What could I have done better against Aberdeen? I’ve had that debate with myself. And I’ve realised that when my team win it’s everyone else’s success. When they lose it’s my fault. That might be unfortunate but it keeps me hungry and driven to succeed.”
At least at Hibs there are no reality TV cameras peering up his nostrils in the hope they might flare with rage. This was his fate at Sunderland, subject of the ‘Til I Die series. Maybe the producers chose the Black Cats in the hope Ross might top Peter Reid’s 40 f-words in an hour-long programme from a previous Wearside reign.
Does Ross swear it well, not just wear it well? He smiles. “George Craig [former head of football operations at Hibs] told me that a manager has to have the ability to say ‘f***’ and mean it and he’s probably right. I’m not a swearer by nature. My two young daughters don’t have to worry about me ever doing it in the house. But swearing is in football and I think my players know that I’ll only ever do it if it’s merited.”
So when have they been blasted? “Last season when we were 1-0 down to Hamilton at half-time was probably the angriest they’ve seen me.” But Ross insists that if his men disagree he wants them to come right back at him. “I was an opinionated sod as a player and questioned everything. I want my players to do that to me.” Who does currently at Hibs? “Not enough of them.”
Surely Hearts’ 3-1 victory at Easter Road back in March, Hibs’ poorest performance under Ross, prompted expletives from the manager but he says not. “The reaction that night was about getting through to the players: ‘We never want to feel like this again.’”
Since the Edinburgh derby rivalry has been mentioned, I sense an opportunity. Managers never discuss any game but the next one, but would he indulge me with a few words about a fixture that’s ten matches away, namely the Scottish Cup semi-final between the capital combatants?
“I’m afraid not.” Come on, I say, he’s in the car for three-and-a-half hours every day, travelling to and from his home in the Northumberland village of Medburn, surely he must have allowed it the occasional fleeting thought? “Honestly, no. I’m thinking about training or the game to come.” He gets the significance of this clash, though. “It’s huge and the prize is huge.” Of course, I add, Hibs have never beaten Hearts at Hampden, indeed Mount Florida has been the scene of two terrible batterings by their city foes. And Hibs, having beaten Hearts twice in the cup in recent seasons from a division below, won’t want the Jambos doing that to them. Ross nods. If he didn’t know about this extra-sharp tang to the semi before, he does now.
For the record, he whiles away the road trips listening to music (Britpop mainly) and podcasts (current fave: the story of OneCoin, a Bulgarian cryptocurrency dubbed “one of the biggest scams in history”). He is after all an Honours graduate in Economics, although this is rarely mentioned in profiles, whereas the two degrees acquired by predecessor Paul Heckingbottom always were. “Mine was a long time ago,” he says. “What did I get from it? Not so much a love of the subject but a determination to get the thing finished.”
This isn’t a criticism but the word that comes to mind with Ross is smooth. He’s a smooth dresser, a smooth talker and after his dismissal from Sunderland the continuation of his profile at Hibs was indeed smooth. Add that glowing reference from Brendan Rodgers – when the latter’s Celtic were given a Scottish Cup scare by Ross’s St Mirren, then in the Championship, Rodgers announced that our man’s gameplan had been superior to anything he’d experienced in the top flight – and you might think the journey to his current position has been almost effortless. Not so.
There was little that was smooth about his playing career, which he feared was over at 18 when he was released by Dundee. “That rejection was the hardest, hardest thing I’ve had to deal with in my life.” More was to come. After graduating from Heriot-Watt and a stint behind the bar of his dad Stewart’s Falkirk pub, the Union Inn by the canal, he worked for a finance company in Edinburgh, “putting numbers in a computer for ten grand a year”. From there he tried to plot a future outwith football but it didn’t go well. “I’m a methodical guy so remember this: I applied for 85 jobs …”
Then he adds: “But – and I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant – I believed that whichever direction I was headed I could be successful.” His focus shifted back to football but he wouldn’t call life at Clyde smooth – they were a rumbustious team. Then it was Hartlepool though not for long, for he fell out with manager Neale Cooper. “I was down there on my own, didn’t enjoy that and made some mistakes,” he says. Then came John Hughes’ Falkirk, more fall-outs with the manager, though Ross is full of respect for Yogi’s work and the exciting team he assembled, including two more found among the gallery of greats at East Mains – Anthony Stokes and Russell Latapy. “Stokesy was 18, a handful but an incredible talent. Russell and I were very close, an absolute genius of a footballer, by culture such a free spirit and the best I played alongside by some distance.” St Mirren and Dunfermline Athletic rounded off the playing c.v. but after hanging up his boots the direction taken might have been football administration.
Ross loves language, communication and resonating words, first mentioning this in relation to music, and while I might have been hoping for the name of a favourite singer-songwriter, he’s recalling a speech delivered by Tony Higgins in Ljubljana: “Tony had taken me under his wing at the Scottish PFA and this was a Fifpro conference. He’s a big guy, of course, but I was tremendously impressed by the way he held the room, talking as he moved, without notes. I also met some smart people out there, much smarter than me.”
But he moved into coaching, first at Under-20s with Hearts though when that post ended there was another spell of soul-searching and flurry of letters. “Sixty or seventy, I still have the spreadsheet from that time. Some of the jobs were in football but some weren’t. I had children by then; I had to work.” Then, eventually, came his first managerial posting at Alloa Athletic.
Apart from Sunderland, the trajectory has been upwards. Musically, Ross may have gone from being “mad for it” at Oasis’s Loch Lomond mega-gigs to tapping a shoe at Michael Buble shows but he still wears the tag of one of Scotland’s bright young football coaches. Does the failure at Sunderland spur him on? “We were a penalty shootout and an injury-time goal away from winning twice at Wembley but I failed in not achieving promotion. I made some mistakes but regarding how I dealt with the job and the pressure of it? I’m proud of that.”
The chat comes back to Scotland and a moment which made him laugh at Hearts when he quizzed the teenagers about their ambitions. “To a boy they all said: ‘Play in the English Premier.’ They asked why I was laughing. I said that in my day it had been to represent the country. Actually it had been to score the winning goal for Scotland in the World Cup final.” What, though, about the grumbles of national coaches these days that club football is king and they don’t get enough time with their charges? “I’m probably speaking from the heart in saying I’d like to manage Scotland one day. But we can’t remove emotion from football, or fantasy.”
Ross may be too-cool-for-school in his touchline attire. He may once or twice have seriously considered not sticking with football. He may keep old spreadsheets. But he also has a match programme collection and when this is dropped into the conversation I’m wondering if I can extend it for another hour.
The most-cherished of his programmes were brought back from games all over the world by an uncle, former Daily Record photographer Richard Parker. Ross was also a programme-seller – at Dens Park when the Dundee pamphlet was edited by one of his neighbours. Then he tells me about an old-timer he met at his daughter Meadow’s game last weekend: “He hosts the stadium tours at Newcastle United but is upset with the club for issuing only digital programmes since football came out of lockdown. This interrupts his collection, complete all the way back to 1959. I love stories like that.”
In conclusion, we talk style – Hibs style. Are Hibs showing enough of it under Ross? The flair tradition, he says, was a big reason for him coming. Yes, it’s the backline who have been receiving most of the plaudits thus far, but the third-worst defence record in the league last season needed sorting. “I want to make Hibs successful but would never be prepared to say I’d sacrifice what this club has been about for so long just to win games.”
If he needs any more insider knowledge he can call on yet another Hibby pal, Ian Murray. “He was a home-and-away fan, captained the club and was in the crowd when they finally won the Scottish Cup, grown men crying all around him. I love stories like that as well.”
Talking of Hampden and the cup, Jack, there’s another big game coming up soon. “I know,” he smiles, “I know … ”
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