PHIL Stubbins and his sister Kerry would rise with the sun, pile into his father’s fish delivery van and journey out into the farm district that surrounds Hull.
There they would spend the morning – sometimes stretching out to a day – picking potatoes.
On their hands and knees, a basket at their side, spade and fork at the ready, they would move down row after row.
‘‘Growing up in the north of England, you had to fight for everything,’’ Stubbins said.
‘‘Potato picking with your parents to get a few extra pounds into the purse strings of the family was something we did.
‘‘We lived in a council estate in Hull. Just a basic life. We never had much money.
‘‘My father delivered fish all over England. We went on holiday for a week once a year. You got what you got at Christmas.
‘‘The whole community was the same ilk. No one was special and everyone pulled their weight.’’
Those traits – hard work, honesty, humility – have been ingrained in Stubbins’ psyche.
And on the eve of his maiden campaign as an A-League coach, he plans to build those same attributes into the Jets.
‘‘Growing up, the spirit of the community was all about hard work,’’ he said.
‘‘I think that befits what the area of Newcastle is about. There is a certain honesty about everything that is brought to the table here.
‘‘I think I fit into that. I have always prided myself as a person who accepts a challenge. Obviously there is one here at the Jets.’’
Stubbins, 51, may also be a poster boy for the understated.
Out to end a four-year absence from the finals, the Jets have endured a turbulent off-season.
They haven’t replaced marquee Emile Heskey; Golden Boot Adam Taggart left for Fulham; the club waited three months for the arrival of Edson Montano from Ecuador; they were dealt a horror draw; and they lost key signing Billy Celeski to groin surgery.
To top it off, owner Nathan Tinkler put the ‘‘for sale’’ sign up, adding that he ‘‘can’t wait to get them out the door’’.
Welcome to life as an A-League coach.
All the way Stubbins has maintained a ‘‘glass half full’’ mantra. It’s almost a personal motto.
‘‘We have done all we can to get the players we felt could service the needs of our team in place,’’ Stubbins said. ‘‘I didn’t bank on Josh Brillante leaving the club. He and Taggart were a part of the club when I arrived.
‘‘We signed Billy Celeski. I didn’t expect him to get injured. I didn’t expect Kanta to get injured, but they have. That is the reality of it.
‘‘At the end of the day, I want the team and whoever plays to have a spirit and endeavour about their performance.
‘‘If we can stay in the moment and take every game one at a time, I think we will be fine.
‘‘It is certainly a very strong competition.
‘‘Looking at Sydney and the marquees they have available, Melbourne Victory as well, not to mention the others clubs.
‘‘It is going to be a challenge for us, but it is a challenge I am certainly up for.
‘‘Looking at the playing group and how they have embraced what we are trying to bring to the table, I think the future is bright.’’
Slowly, slowly over the pre-season the pieces of the puzzle have started to fall into place.
Marcos Flores and Scott Neville are nearing full fitness after knee reconstructions, David Carney has reshaped his body and found the form that earned him 48 Socceroos caps, Jonny Steele has added a tough edge bred in Northern Ireland, Jeronimo brings speed and silk and Mark Birighitti is motivated for a shot at Asian Cup selection.
The results have improved, too. After losing to Perth 2-0 in the FFA Cup and being out-paced and out-classed by Brisbane Roar (4-0) and Sydney FC (4-2), the Jets beat Wellington (2-1), held the Mariners to a scoreless draw and beat the Young Socceroos (2-1).
‘‘There are a lot of people out there writing us off given the ownership doubts and the injuries we have had to work through,’’ Stubbins said. ‘‘I don’t think we will have the soft underbelly that perhaps people perceive.
‘‘It will be a fight for us initially, but moving through the weeks we will rise to a standard that will match most, if not all, teams.
‘‘Although it’s been disruptive early on, we have not lost in our last three games and the boys have grown into their roles.
‘‘Their confidence has grown and so has their performance.
‘‘The underdog tag suits us, but we will surprise a few teams.’’
Appointed in May, Stubbins quickly identified leadership and squad balance for urgent attention.
Although finishing seventh last season, the Jets boasted the third best defence, giving up 34 goals at a touch over one a game.
The flip side was a misfiring attack, which scored 34 goals, the third worst. Taggart contributed 16. Joel Griffiths was next best with three in eight appearances.
‘‘That is not good enough,’’ Stubbins said.
‘‘When I came to the club I said there was an imbalance.
‘‘We have released some players, but we have brought in some firepower as well.
‘‘I believe all players are responsible to pitch in with their quota of goals from every position.
‘‘To do well in the A-League your strike force in particular needs to be scoring, whether they are playing as a striker, winger or a number 10.
‘‘The fullbacks also need to score goals and assist goals.
‘‘David Carney set up two goals [from left back] against the Young Socceroos. We need more of that from the fullbacks.
‘‘Central defenders need to be scoring their two to three goals a year. It’s a collective.’’
Under previous coach Gary van Egmond, the Jets were rigid in their approach. He stuck to a 4-3-3 formation and possession-based game regardless of the opposition or the outcome.
When caretaker coach Clayton Zane took the reins midway through last season he employed predominantly a 4-4-2 system.
‘‘My philosophy statement is to be entertaining, organised and effective,’’ Stubbins said.
‘‘We want to play in a way that fits that philosophy.
‘‘I’m also pragmatic. I recognise if we are playing Manchester United tomorrow, we are going to have to play in a way that gives us the best opportunity to win the game.
‘‘I won’t be trying to smash a square peg into a round hole.
‘‘The last hitout against the Young Socceroos was a glimpse of how we can play in terms of rotations and everything else.
‘‘We have the opening four games away from home. When we have the ball we want to play in a certain way and when we don’t have the ball we want to play in a certain way.
‘‘I don’t think it will be the goalkeeper and a block of everyone in front of the ball.
‘‘But we will have to be mindful that we are away from home.’’
Stubbins’ love affair with a round ball started early.
It was not a way out of Hull, more a way of life.
‘‘It was something we all played from morning to night,’’ he said.
Signed by Hull City as a schoolboy, his career was stalled by a horrific accident aged 15.
‘‘I was on a pushbike and hit a truck,’’ Stubbins said.
‘‘No surprises, I came off second best. I shattered my skull and my kneecap.
‘‘It took nearly three years to come back from that. Slowly I found my feet and worked my way through the ranks.’’
Eventually there was an offer to move to Australia.
Stubbins was at Mansfield Town when approached in 1988 by Melbourne club Heidelberg.
‘‘A friend of mine was playing for Darlington and was looking for new pastures,’’ Stubbins said.
‘‘He asked if I would consider going to Australia. I gave him my telephone number. Luckily I was home when the Heidelberg club president rang. There were no mobile phones back then.
‘‘I decided to take the plunge. I stayed in a Greek monastery in Melbourne for five months.
‘‘We had a terrific time and won the championship in our first campaign.
‘‘That led into the old NSL. I spent 12 seasons at Heidelberg.’’
Stubbins played more than 100 games in the NSL before dropping back to the Victorian State League to take a player-coach position at Westvale Olympic.
‘‘I bought a courier business and was up at 5.30am every morning and training three nights a week,’’ he said.
‘‘I worked very hard and was able to purchase a few properties.
‘‘My upbringing meant I wasn’t afraid to roll up the sleeves and get stuck in. In Australia, if you are fair and honest and are hard working, you do all right for yourself.’’
Stubbins’ big break came after transforming the fortunes of Victorian Premier League club Richmond in 2006.
‘‘Richmond were bottom of the league when I came in. We won eight of the last 12 games and pushed on to a finals spot.
‘‘I was awarded the Victorian coach of the year.
‘‘Then I got a phone call from Adelaide United president Michael Petrillo asking if I was interested in going over and being involved with Aurelio Vidmar.
‘‘We had a great 4 years. It was a great journey.
‘‘I had always been a head coach prior to that. It was very good for me to see the other side of the fence as an assistant.
‘‘Looking back at it in terms of experience, it was a great eye-opener for me.’’
Former Newcastle Breaker Travis Dodd was captain of Adelaide and had a strong working relationship with Stubbins.
‘‘He was very approachable and easy to talk to,’’ Dodd told the Herald this week.
‘‘Football wise, he was great at breaking things down, and technically very strong.’’
Stubbins met wife and best friend Anna in Adelaide. She has a successful hairdressing business in the South Australian capital and is a regular visitor to Newcastle.
Stubbins’ sons from a previous relationship Phil, 30, and Scott, 29, live in England.
Man management has always been a strong suit for the Yorkshireman.
As a head coach, you cannot always be the ‘‘nice guy’’.
‘‘I think I have empowered a lot of my staff here. I have inherited some good people,’’ he said.
‘‘We are a young group, it is our first season working together, and we will learn a hell of a lot over the course of the year.
‘‘In the last month, I have felt in charge of the club. That has been a consequence of stamping my authority on some things and not being the good guy, but being the boss of the club and trying to get things in place I think need to be.
‘‘There are certain formulas that I think need to be part of the chemistry of the group. We are improving in a lot of areas.’’
Walks with senior players around Honeysuckle, where Stubbins lives, and the Newcastle foreshore have become commonplace.
‘‘It gives me the opportunity in the environment that is right,’’ Stubbins said.
‘‘If the moment is right, they are going to be open to what I say. I am always looking for angles that are going to improve the players and improve the group.
‘‘The biggest thing I have learnt is to listen. I listen to what the boys have to say, deliver my message, we have bit of a union in terms of finding the right path to move forward. Those meetings and little discussions have been very helpful.’’
Stubbins has long been considered an A-League coach in waiting. He was short-listed and interviewed well when van Egmond was installed in 2011 for his second term in charge and missed out on the top job in Adelaide to Dutchman Rini Coolen when Vidmar left.
After two years at the Australian Institute of Sport, Stubbins went to Thailand for an opportunity to be the main man.
‘‘I have had the silver medal a couple of times at other job opportunities as a head coach in the A-League,’’ Stubbins said.
‘‘It was a case of never losing faith and staying the course.
‘‘Hopefully doing as much as you can to put yourself in the shop window. I had to go to South East Asia to do that.
‘‘Fortunately it was my time at Newcastle. I’m extremely grateful that the club called me.
‘‘There will be people from the outside looking in.
‘‘I’m looking forward to the challenge of getting the best out of the group, getting the best out of myself and my staff.
‘‘The glass half full is what I am.
‘‘There is a positive side to everything, and that is what I bring to Newcastle. We want to beat Central Coast, we want to beat Melbourne City, we want to beat Wellington and everyone after that.
‘‘People can give us that underdog tag. We will wear that with pride. Bring it on.’’