How Lee Johnson and Hibs dealt with Celtic rout: 'Full-stop' meeting, psychological evaluation, and Oscar MacIntyre
If you’ve ever met Lee Johnson, you’ll most likely regard the Hibs manager as a softly-spoken, affable character; quick with a smile and a one-liner.
So it’s a bit of a surprise to hear him practically growl as he grimaces and begins revealing details of the heated ‘full-stop’ meeting that he dragged his players into on Sunday, their day off, after the 6-1 defeat by Celtic the previous day. He insists he is no longer angry about the result and performance – ‘I’m now very curious about it’ – but it wouldn’t take a body-language expert to confirm that aspects of the 90 minutes still rankle. He believes his side were beaten before kick-off.
"I wasn't happy; it was a negative meeting in terms of my delivery. There were not many positives from it,” Johnson says. "I'm just not willing to accept the fact that we can't get closer to those teams. Now I look back on it, I think we were beaten before we even went into the game. It was an absolute shock to me."
The Easter Road boss even spoke to two psychologists about his players’ mindset, having already questioned the mentality of some individuals in the aftermath of the cinch Premiership clash, and said he had spent a lot of time thinking not just about the game but about the surrounding atmosphere.
"I realised that these guys have probably been beaten year-on-year since they were eight years old by these teams. You practically come out of the womb and you’re told Celtic and Rangers are amazing. I thought about the players who have been in Scotland for a long time and this brainwashing,” he continues.
A look of faint anguish passes over his face as he relives Saturday’s meeting, and in particular, the opening exchanges. He describes the mistakes made for the goals as ‘so schoolboy it was unbelievable’.
"I hated it; couldn't stand it. A couple of actions happened in the first ten minutes or so and that was it. It was as if they collectively said, 'Oh right, here we go. They're playing well today and we're not',” he adds.
Having spoken to the psychologists Johnson is firmly of the opinion that the club needs to address what he feels is a ‘fear factor’ when it comes to playing the likes of Celtic or Rangers away from home. He is full of admiration for Celtic – ‘a fantastic team with fantastic individual brilliance’ – but insists that the gap is not as big as it seems.
"We’re not 6-1 away from Celtic. On Saturday we were, and it could have been ten. I was angry after the game because I felt we let everyone down and gave up points that were available, but I’m now very curious about it,” he explains.
"I think we can start a psychological programme with our young pups, from 16 all the way through. As an example, we whitewashed Rangers at Academy level over the weekend. That’s a good start. Our under-18s won the league last year, that’s good too. They’re probably not affected in the same way.
"You want to phase out that negative psychology, and replace it with positive belief. Could we go to Celtic Park in three years time with midfielders who are 16 now and 19 then in our team, with a completely different fear factor?”
While he has castigated his players for not performing to their strengths, Johnson has also had a look at his own approach to the game and highlighted things he can improve on, but he also has a warning for any of his players who are getting too comfortable in his starting team.
"Oh yeah, there’s loads I would do differently. The first person you look at is yourself,” he says. “You look at the team selection, the way you set the press, did I create enough time to study given the quick turnaround from midweek? In terms of selection I thought Harry McKirdy and Martin Boyle were backfoot-thinking very early. I could have been brave and not played them, or played them in a position where they could apply pressure high up the pitch.
"What disappointed me the most was the fear in defending, and it doesn't matter who it was because we showed too much respect to stop the forward play. That's not my style and that's not my game, and players will play their way out of the team by not performing,” he adds.
"I might as well have played [development-squad left-back] Oscar MacIntyre, as an example. On a day like that, in any position – doesn't matter if it's centre-half, left-back, right-back, centre midfield, he'd give you that pure passion."
St Johnstone are next up for Hibs, visiting Easter Road on Friday in the first Scottish Premiership game to be played with a Video Assistant Referee (VAR). Johnson is treating the game as a prime opportunity for Hibs to banish the ghosts of last weekend and put in the sort of performance that has got them to third.
"Even when everybody questioned us, there were so many positives in our performances that it was only going to be a matter of time before it turned,” he insists. “We knew that statistically, but you need that little bit of luck as well. Even the Dundee United game, we were pretty good in terms of chances created and stuff like that.
"We've just got to keep doing what we're doing. The next game is the next opportunity to bring out your best as a player within the team structure. We’ve shown that we can compete in the majority of games we've played so this becomes a genuine chance to capitalise and get three points.
“It's a great night for it; under the lights, a good experience and historic in that it's the first one with VAR so we want to be on the right side of all that."