In light of events at Easter Road last week, Saturday’s showdown between Morton and Hibs stands as the most intriguing in Scotland this weekend.
Football matters alone mean the Championship clash at Cappielow carries plenty relevance, with both sides desperate to enhance their respective promotion prospects. However, there is no getting away from the fact there will be many curious interlopers primarily looking to see how the two teams, and particularly the two managers, Jim Duffy and Neil Lennon, behave when pitted together just ten days after their now infamous rammy in Leith.
The war of words has died down in recent days, with Duffy clearly trying to take the sting out of the situation with a low-key column in The Scottish Sun yesterday in which he praised Hibs as a team and tried to draw a line under last Wednesday’s bust-up. However, there are still plenty unresolved matters from a match in which the two bosses and two players, Darren McGregor and Kudus Oyenuga, were red carded. McGregor’s appeal against his dismissal for allegedly headbutting Oyenuga will be heard today, while both managers and the Morton assistant Craig McPherson have been cited by the compliance officer and will face hearings a fortnight today which are likely to result in touchline bans. The fact Oyenuga, deemed as the main villain of the piece by Lennon, has escaped further sanction for apparent simulation in the McGregor incident is unlikely to have helped in the bridge-building process between the teams.
“It’s hard to say how it’ll go because Neil in particular was still annoyed about it a few days later,” said Billy Brown, a former Hearts and Hibs assistant manager who is no stranger to a technical area disagreement. “I’m not surprised Jim’s been trying to play it down recently because what happened last week is most unlike him. He’s got another side to him, but he’s usually calm. Whether Neil’s calmed down or not remains to be seen.
“I have to say I’d be surprised if there was a recurrence of what happened at Easter Road, but when it comes to managers in the dugout, you just never know. Usually when you have a bust-up, you don’t face the other guy again for three or four months, so this situation is a bit unique. But I think there’s a good chance we’ll see a respectful silence between the two.”
Brown has sympathy for both managers over a situation which escalated quickly following a rash tackle by Oyenuga on Hibs defender Jordon Forster right in front of Lennon’s technical area. “These things happen in football – they can shoot up out of nothing sometimes,” said Brown. “I know Jim and Neil and they’re both good lads who have a lot of passion about their jobs and football in general. It’s simply been a case of Neil being enraged by the tackle from the Morton player and then Jim reacting to Neil’s reaction. It caused a scene and I’m sure that, when they sat down in the cold light of day, especially Jim, they wouldn’t be particularly proud of what they’d done. But, believe me, you can’t control when something like that happens.
“I’ve got sympathy with both of them. Unless you’ve been in that dugout, you don’t know what it’s like. I know people say that you’ve got to set an example, but when you’ve got the passion that people like Neil Lennon, Jim Duffy, or most other managers have, your thoughts are not on being a role model – all you’re focused on is what’s happening in the match and anything that you feel might have been done wrong to your team. I’ve been in the same position as Neil and Jim a hundred times. I know Neil felt aggrieved about the whole thing and the way he’s been maligned for it, but he’s a smashing lad who just has a real passion for the job and for his club. Sometimes that spills over, but you can’t help it.
“Unless you’ve been in that situation, you can’t know for certain how you’d react. You’ve got to remember that both of these guys are under pressure in terms of trying to get out that league. Neil knows Hibs have got to get out of the Championship. Jim’s got Morton in such a great position and now that they’re there, he’ll want to go all the way to the Premiership. After what’s happened, all eyes will be on the dugouts on Saturday, which is not how it should be, but it’s understandable because it doesn’t half add excitement for the neutrals. Whether Jim and Neil say much to each other on Saturday, I’m not so sure.”
Brown admits to letting his emotions get the better of him in the technical area. One of his most recent bust-ups came as assistant manager to Gary Locke at Hearts three-and-a-half years ago when he and Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes were sent to the stand after the Tynecastle side scored a late winner. “It was towards the end and we were drawing 1-1,” Brown recalled. “We got a free-kick and I went out to tell them to get the ball into the box. I was in front of our dugout but almost in front of the tunnel so I was quite close to their technical area. Jordan McGhee scored from the free-kick and I turned round to celebrate and, because they’re so close, I ended up at the front of Aberdeen’s technical area. I shouldn’t have been there, but I genuinely didn’t know I was there. Derek grabbed me and I reacted. The ref sent Derek to the stand and then he dealt with me. Tony Docherty [the Aberdeen assistant] had words with me as I was passing by but he wasn’t really involved in it. It was mainly me and Derek and it continued up the tunnel. It was an unfortunate incident that I didn’t like at the time but we had a drink and made up after the game. Both of us were up at Hampden at the same time to get tried. We were sitting in a room together for about an hour. There were no grudges held between me and Derek.
“Funnily enough, I actually remember encroaching on the Hibs dugout at Easter Road in my first spell as Hearts assistant. I had a fracas with Jackie McNamara when I was trying to retrieve the ball. I shouldn’t have done it and we ended up having a wee confab – shall we say – in the technical area. And guess who the manager was that day? Jim Duffy. I’ve actually never seen Jim get particularly irate in the dugout.”
Although there may still be ill feeling from last week’s match, Brown, currently No.2 to Locke at Cowdenbeath, expects Duffy and Lennon to bury the hatchet soon enough. “I’ve been involved in a few bust-ups in my time, but I never ever let it linger,” he said. “Afterwards, I used to drive home in my car thinking ‘what an idiot I was today’, and then I’d go out and behave in the same way the following week. But seriously, I don’t think there’s any point in letting things linger because it’s a waste of emotion. You’re better concentrating on your job. I can’t ever remember any grudges getting held long term over incidents I was involved in on a match-day. I hope Jim and Neil get it sorted out somewhere along the line because they’re two good men. They really are great lads. They might not make up right at this moment but I think they will eventually.”