On the same day the football world was raving about Jack Wilshere’s incredible goal for Arsenal, Hibs were effectively being branded a team of hatchet-men.
To those romantics who still cling to the notion that Easter Road should be home to the type of graceful football showcased so brilliantly by Arsenal, Neil Lennon’s words won’t have sat easily.
Yet, while everyone, understandably, would love to see their team play the type of mesmerising stuff the Gunners have made their trademark under Arsene Wenger, Hibs should take the Celtic manager’s scathing criticism of their physical approach as a compliment.
Lennon may have gone way over the top with his use of words like “absolutely shocking”, “reckless” and “rugby-esque” after a game in which only two Hibs players were booked and none have since been cited by the eagle-eyed SFA compliance officer, Vincent Lunny. But the fact he even felt compelled to vent his spleen is something of a feather in the cap of this functional but effective Hibs team.
For too long, Hibs have been viewed as a soft touch. That certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday, when an “in-their-face” approach from Pat Fenlon’s men knocked Celtic out of their stride. They might not have set the heather alight in terms of playing pretty football, but, operating within the rules, they did what they had to to stop Celtic running amok. All Hibs were guilty of was standing up to be counted, the same way Celtic have to when they meet more illustrious opponents in the Champions League.
With the team that took to the field on Saturday, playing in that manner, it seems inconceivable that Hibs would lose 5-1 to the Hearts team of May 2012 or 7-0 to Malmo. And, while the scars of those games, allied to recent relegation battles, remain, being hard to beat still has to be Fenlon’s primary objective. There are plenty down Easter Road way who pine for the day when Hibs are once again hailed for their style rather than substance, but history tells us there are few teams in Scotland, outwith the Old Firm, who have prospered in the modern era while playing scintillating football.
The last team to really set the heather alight in Scotland was Tony Mowbray’s buccaneering Hibs side almost a decade ago. Mogga, however, was blessed with a one-off golden generation of young talent capable of playing fast, flowing football on the deck in the competitive environment of the SPL. Yet for all that, they remained susceptible when up against more physical opponents, as Craig Levein gleefully pointed out after Mowbray’s much-vaunted team were outbattled by his Hearts side at Tynecastle in 2004. “It’s difficult for us being considered the big bullies against those little boys at Hibs,” said Levein.
A further instance of a manager’s comments doing little to improve Hibs’ reputation for being a soft touch came when John Collins branded Hearts a “pub team” in the Tynecastle tunnel despite the hosts just having beaten his Hibs team 3-2 in 2006. I’m a huge admirer of Collins and his football principles, but there’s a time and a place for being critical of another team’s style – and it’s not after they’ve just put your side to the sword.
Kilmarnock were widely hailed for their expansive style under Mixu Paatelainen and then Kenny Shiels, but despite all the plaudits, they never threatened the European positions. Inverness give off the impression of being a scintillating team because they score so many goals, but the fundamental ingredient of their success is their workrate and their power.
For all their vibrancy over the past few years, the one constant in Motherwell’s recent success has been captain Keith Lasley, who is no shrinking violet when it comes to picking up bookings and red cards.
Partick Thistle are arguably playing the most exciting football in the league this season, but in terms of picking up points they are being outrun by the likes of Hibs. Likewise, the current Hearts team arguably have better footballers than many of their rivals, but, as is so often the case for youngsters in Scotland, they are finding their technique nullified by the experience and physicality of their more seasoned opponents.
It wasn’t always like this at Tynecastle, of course. Until recently, Hearts were widely viewed as “a big, physical team”, renowned more for power than panache. It certainly didn’t do them much harm in terms of accumulating third-place finishes and cup glory. Csaba Laszlo, who led Hearts to third place in 2009, always spoke of the importance of “winning football”. “If I win, I am nice. If we lose, I am the bad guy and don’t look so nice,” he said.
In a results-driven business, winning is the bottom line. And, right now, without the aid of a golden generation of swashbuckling youngsters, functional and physical football rather than flair looks the best way for Hibs to achieve that.