Hibs boss Lee Johnson speaks on pre-derby incident, 'defamation', combining 'skill and will', and Sunshine on Leith

It was all over social media the day before the match: Hibs manager Lee Johnson, up town, posing for photos in a George Street establishment less than 24 hours before his side faced off against Hearts at Tynecastle Park.

The reaction was predictable and the optics weren’t great, which the Easter Road boss accepts, even if he was merely out for a family meal and not a late-night boozing session as suggested. “You won’t see me going out for dinner the day before a game again that’s for sure – unless I’m wearing a fake nose, moustache, and glasses,” he says, with a wry grin.

While Johnson insists he doesn’t want to be a ‘ghost around town’, he feels there was a more serious side to the incident. “I didn’t like it, because I felt it was defamation of character,” he continues. “I am a professional and I know I wouldn’t dream of going out drinking the night before, even although some of the best managers I have played for enjoyed a good old matchday minus one to reduce the anxiety. I found it quite fascinating considering I was in bed by 9.45pm. Crazy.”

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It is the first time Johnson has spoken about it, the aftermath of the new year derby taken up by his ferocious post-match press conference in which he castigated his players and lamented mistakes made by the club in the recent past.

Lee Johnson speaks to the media ahead of Sunday's cup derby

“It is what it is,” he sighs. “It is a small city, and I like to be present in the city because I like speaking to fans and I like bumping into people. I have had long, extended chats with fans I have met in and around the city and I enjoy that. I like to feel the passion. You want to be trusted as a top manager and a professional and I have to earn my stripes in a tough job. There are no easy jobs unless a manager leaves for a bigger and better job, there is a lot to do because some thing is wrong there. But I have enjoyed it and I have enjoyed the challenges we’ve faced. There have been a lot of hurdles.”

Sunday is another hurdle. Win, and Hibs will enjoy bragging rights in the city, a place in the next round of the cup, and a huge confidence boost. Lose, and the mood in EH7 will take another turn for the worse.

“It’s a one-off game and a derby. It is everything wrapped up in one,” Johnson continues. “There should be an unbelievable atmosphere and we are looking forward to that. Hearts are a good team but we’re up for it, we are going to fight and hustle and work hard. These games are about the skill and the will. You can’t have just one, you have to show both.

"You have to show the will to win but if you don’t show the skill then you just end up a busy fool. I really want the boys to show that will and skill and show belief in themselves and remain calm when everything else around them is hectic. But at the same time they have to battle and fight like you have to, to win derbies.”

Johnson will go head-to-head with former Hearts team-mate Robbie Neilson for the third time since taking the Hibs job

Beating Hearts in the cup would surely be a springboard to better form in the league. Aberdeen are the next visitors to Easter Road on cinch Premiership duty and manager Jim Goodwin is, like Johnson, feeling the heat a little.

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“We have this game and then the next game and they are two very important games for us. We want to progress in the cup and then start moving up the league again. Even the other night, it was a nice set of results because it took us into the top six again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not shouting from the rooftops about going into sixth in the league but you have to remember that this job is a doer-upper, not one that was ready and primed. But we are in touch and therefore every game has maximum importance.”

He speaks about injecting anxiety and confidence into the players, depending on what fuels them as individuals. “You’re always trying to drive the passion and the fire as much as possible,” he explains.

“We’ve had things said about us that are right, and things said about us that are wrong. This is one of the beauties of football in Scotland because there are a lot of columns to fill and a lot of cameras in your face, and a lot of action and a lot of scrutiny. This will be scrutinised more than any game we’ve had this season and therefore you’ve got an opportunity to enhance the club’s reputation. I think the players can do that by putting in a top performance and naturally getting a result.”

Johnson speaks to his squad during a training session at HTC
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There are unlikely to be any Saturday evening excursions this weekend for Johnson, although he may consider it on Sunday if the result goes the right way – ‘I might get the keys to the city if we win’ – but more than anything though, he hopes that come full time, a certain Proclaimers number can be played loud and proud in the home dressing room.

"That song is iconic. Sunshine on Leith is one of the best football songs going. I’d like to play it after every win but that would obviously dilute its effect,” he muses. “I understand how you create a force within a football club and songs and feelings that are stirred on the back of things like that are massive. Just look at the cup final win and all the fans singing it behind the goal at Hampden with the lads lifting the trophy. What an unbelievable experience.

“It’s a technique to recruit in our video to potential signings – ‘come and join us, we’re a big club’. That’s what players want. You can put yourself in that and say this is what we’re working for – moments like that. Moments like that are the cherry on the cake.”