Why Hibs boss Lee Johnson hasn't yet been in touch with Robbie Neilson as he eyes derby win at fourth time of asking
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There was a time, not all that long ago, when the ‘R’ word was being whispered in the pubs and bars nearest Easter Road. Then, quite unexpectedly, and after Lee Johnson’s candid and frank assessment of his team’s performance in the new year derby at Tynecastle, things started to improve. And they kept improving. Before too long they were within five points of rivals Hearts having embarked on a seven-game unbeaten run, with some impressive results along the way.
Then another bad spell; back-to-back defeats by Rangers and Celtic, while perhaps not unexpected, were followed up by reversals at home to Motherwell and away to Dundee United. Yet for Johnson, despite that run of four losses on the bounce, third place remains the goal, the carrot, the light at the end of a particularly incident-packed tunnel – and he’s adamant that light isn’t just a fast-approaching train.
“Our reaching for the stars, for us, is third. We can’t make second, we can’t win the league. Given the fact we have to play these teams, if we reach the top six, that turns the tide very quickly. Particularly with two super-strong teams in the division, it becomes a league within a league. And whoever manages to steal points off the Old Firm, that’s a Brucie bonus point. But drawing it back in, our sole focus is to win this game,” he adds.
The manager is appreciative of the backing of supporters, who have turned out in their numbers at home and away this season, even when things haven’t been going particularly well. He wants them to play their part in a first victory against Hearts since Boxing Day 2019.
"We need a club performance. We need the fans to help us, and we’ve got to get the crowd going with a front-foot mentality: pressing, hungry, mobile, fleet-footed, no fear in playing forward with quality,” he says,
“Not long ball, but feeding the forwards more quickly than we have been. That’s what I’m trying to build at Hibs. The fans have a big part to play and it would be great to get a win with everyone playing their part. I think, when Easter Road is whipped up, it’s a really powerful place for a home team to play.
“We’ve seen that in the Rangers game, the first ten or 15 minutes, the same for the Celtic game. But it’s a 96-minute game and we need it for the whole time. That super-charged atmosphere surely lends itself to being a positive for us this Saturday. That’s what we need. When you think things are against you, that’s when the fans can be the twelfth man.”
Hearts are in the curious position of having sacked manager Robbie Neilson less than a week before this derby with so much riding on it for both teams. Johnson knows the ousted boss well from their playing days and while he claims nothing surprises him in football anymore, he plans to reach out once the dust has settled.
“Robbie is a friend from my playing days. I haven’t messaged him yet but I will – when it dies down in a week, ten days or two weeks. When the phone goes quiet, knowing from my own experience, that’s the time when you can some real depth to the conversation. I found out the same as everyone else. Bad news travels fast. Robbie knows that football management is precarious. But our focus stays on Hibs, and a chance to close the gap.”
Focused, determined, and perhaps all too aware that the run of form that spelled the end for Neilson – five successive defeats – could be one he shares with his former Tynecastle colleague come Saturday afternoon. But despite that he is looking forward to the game.
"It’s a great game, isn’t it? I’m looking forward to it, we have had an absolute battle of a season, as we’ve said previously, for a number of reasons. We’ve never been able to have a consistent flow of team selection, when we have had good results something has been whipped away from us. What a game.
"We have something to play for; we’re not going down. We’ve got the opportunity to secure a place in the top six which then gives us a chance to secure a place in Europe so that’s the aim. That’s our goals and that’s what we are trying to achieve,” he says, with just a hint of steely determination. But what does he expect from a Hearts team that could look, and play, a bit different under interim boss Steven Naismith?
"I think we know what to expect from Hearts. Normally the dial on the opposition is 85 per cent concentrating on ourselves, and 15 per cent on the opposition. Sometimes we tweak it – lads don’t want to hear too much about the opposition, they would much rather hear about themselves and how their attributes can come out in the game."
Johnson hopes that, come teatime on Saturday, he is still waxing lyrical about a victory, and his team’s performance, and not resorting to the measures he took on January 2 in Gorgie.
“We have got a better culture now,” he explains. “It was important to get players out, not because they were bad lads, but because there was a bit of a malaise around the building. That’s not there anymore but we are far from finished. There’s no way I am finished in terms of the building phase and what I expect. And that’s why we need these little boosters over the course of the season, just to keep the positivity as strong as it can possibly be.”