Park the bus or full speed ahead? Hibs seek balance against Celtic

Monty heads west believing in his team's ability to upset odds
Outnumbered but not outfought - Dylan Vente wrestles with two Celtic defenders.Outnumbered but not outfought - Dylan Vente wrestles with two Celtic defenders.
Outnumbered but not outfought - Dylan Vente wrestles with two Celtic defenders.

There’s no such thing as a free hit in football. Not for managers who harbour genuine ambitions to challenge the very best. Count Nick Montgomery among that number.

Actively dismissing the notion that his team will travel to Celtic Park entirely devoid of expectation, if not hope, the relative rookie – in Scottish football terms – still understands the scale of the task confronting him. Without a win at this particular venue since January of 2010, Hibs don’t exactly have a long and proud history of upsetting the Hoops on their own patch.

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So, sure, the gulf in quality means the visitors may, at times, be required to perform with all the adventure of a stationary charabanc plonked across the edge of their penalty box. You can only play as much football as the opposition allow, in some games. Yet even the memory of shipping four goals without reply at Ibrox back in October, a shock to the system that prompted an immediate response courtesy of a 0-0 home draw with Celtic the following weekend, hasn’t pushed Montgomery towards the fatalism that afflicts so many tasked with taking on the Old Firm.

“Going to Celtic Park, it’s not a free hit,” said the 41-year-old Yorkshireman, who heads west with his team buoyed by a three-game winning sequence. “I don’t subscribe to that. At Ibrox, we actually played really well but just gave away some shocking goals.

“We will go there (to Celtic Park) looking to get a result, but we’re realistic and know it’s a very hard place to go. We’re in a good place, we feel we’re progressing well. The togetherness we showed at the weekend (in the 2-0 win over Aberdeen), that shows we’ve come a long way.

“But I definitely don’t go with it being a free hit – it’s 11 v 11. Yeah, the odds are stacked against you and we’re definitely the underdog, but you’ve seen many times in sport that the underdog can come through and get the result.”

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In just shy of three months at the helm, Montgomery has made clear progress with a group of players inherited from predecessor Lee Johnson. Not to mention a few recruited by the guy before that. Or the guy before that.

Finding the majority receptive to a change of style, he’s convinced them that building from the back – even if that means drawing opponents on to go long – is the key to developing as a team. There are, of course, risks. But the rewards should be obvious by now.

Asked outright if he’d consider “parking the bus” in Glasgow tonight, Montgomery struck a note between ambition and realism as he said: “That’s not me. That’s not how I see the game - but there is no doubt that we will have to park the bus at times. There will be times when the goal is under threat, and we have got a lot better at blocking shots and crosses.

“Celtic are a team with a lot of mobility and players who are good on the ball and have good movement, so there will be times when we are defending deep and we will have to park the bus. But when we have the ball, we are going to try to get at Celtic when we can.

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“We know we have pace to hurt every team in the competition. And we have to be careful and make sure that, when we have the ball, we don’t turn it over cheaply. They are a team that are very good in possession, and they are more than happy to keep the ball, so we have to defend for our lives.

“Against Celtic, against Aberdeen, against St Mirren, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, there are times when you are going to be under pressure, and you have to dig in and defend the ball with everything you’ve got. That will happen at periods through the game.”

In the home draw against Celtic, Hibs were particularly bold in playing out from the back. They might just be the one team in Scotland who WANT Brendan Rodgers’ men to press them in their own penalty box.

As for whether Monty will be quite so cavalier in enemy territory, he said: “Celtic are going to be aggressive. I am not Brendan Rodgers, so maybe they will want to press high, maybe they will let us have the ball. But we can only identify that in the game and make sure we will be set for whatever we need to do.

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“We will definitely play the way we have been playing; at times we play direct and sometimes we play out from the back. It is up to the players to realise when to do that during the game and execute the right decision.

“That is why you train so that, when you come to the big stadiums and the big pressure environments, you can remain calm and stick to the game plan. No doubt they will be aggressive. They are at home, they will want to win the game - and it is up to us to try to make that hard for them.”