How Johnson broadside brought about Hibs changes - and what would be a 'successful' season
Whisper it quietly, but it might just have been the catalyst behind Hibs’ late push for fourth. The Easter Road side has lost just four games since that loss to Hearts – including one against Rangers and another against Celtic at Parkhead – and were it not for meek back-to-back defeats by Dundee United and Motherwell, might have been going into the final round of fixtures battling Aberdeen for third, rather than their city rivals for fourth.
So much so that Johnson isn’t even convinced that Saturday marks the biggest game of his managerial career – nearly 500 games and counting, by the way.
“It feels like the next game and I will be honest with you, I feel like that a lot of times,” he says, looking ahead to the final game of the season. “I could argue that Dundee United away, when we lost earlier this year, was one of the biggest games. That's how I feel. They all feel massive. I speak to my mates back down south and they ask who we’ve got that weekend and I think, ‘how can you not know?’ Because to me, each game seems like the biggest of the season. When you're in the bubble, that game means everything to you. So yeah, the next one is the most important one.”
But even if it isn’t the biggest game in Johnson’s eyes, it is still getting the big-match treatment. Even a cryotherapy chamber was spotted at East Mains in a bid to help the players recover with three big games in just six days to close out the campaign.
“I felt it was a good little addition,” Johnson explains. “Not just for recovery and rejuvenation but it also helps with sleep – go in there a couple of times and it guarantees you sleep. You go into almost a death state. Then as you come through it all the toxins and lactic acid is flushed out and a good sleep comes. It also burns around 500 calories.”
It’s a world away from energy-sapping runs up the sandhills at Gullane beach but Johnson is keen to do whatever it takes to gives Hibs the best chance of victory. He has no regrets about his broadside in January – and why would he, when one looks at the changes in his side since?
“I think sometimes as a manager you have to show your teeth, you have to do that,” he says. “You can’t mollycoddle and be nice and not put demands on people. Respect is obviously key but sometimes you have to say, ‘look, the club has fallen short’. And really, the players were falling short – not so much in training with their effort and their professionalism, but in terms of taking that across the line. Part of it was psychological, part of it was culture, and the fact we had some big injuries.
“We are in a much better place now than we were then and everybody is committed to that, including the players. When we let 14 go in January that was part of the malaise around the building I talked about. Now that’s not there, this is a vibrant culture where people come into work to improve. They know the rules; if they fall short of those rules there’s a disciplinary procedure in place which there wasn’t before, so there’s always that threat, and the ones who are never going to be in disciplinary action are happy with that because they don’t like seeing their team-mates or the club disrespected. These are the type of things we had to implement and it has been excellent.
“The run we have been on over the course of 15-20 games has been consistent in my eyes, in terms of performances. Naturally you have some peaks and troughs in that. But we know our system, our shape, we have young players developing all the time. Lewis Miller is an example: he gets slung in against Celtic and puts in a performance like that in a big game. Massive credit goes to him that he could maintain his focus but also for developing in the environment like he has.”
The enormity of Saturday’s game cannot be underestimated – for Hearts as well as Hibs. There is so much at stake and on top of that things could get tasty on the touchline. Steven Naismith has ruffled a few feathers since taking the reins at Hearts while Johnson’s own card count this season reads more like that of a midfielder not a manager.
“That technical area is wild. We’re all loose cannons, everybody wants to win. It’s strange, isn’t it? A man being stood in a little cage and if he steps out of a white line another man drags you back in or books you. Obviously both benches will be competitive and I don’t think anybody will stand down in a game like this,” Johnson continues.
"We know what we've got to do. Fifth doesn't mean anything until Celtic win the Scottish Cup. There's a lot at stake: a little more prize money, local bragging rights, there's setting a marker down, there's the European place. I've no idea what's going to happen but what I do know is that we'll go out and every bit of us will go for the win.
“It will be a really good game and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s great when you win these games and very difficult if you lose. But, at the same time, whatever happens, I’ll still believe it’s been a successful season – as long as we get into the European places.”