Aidan Smith: If Jack Ross's Hibs aren't a boyband but heavy metal they need a killer riff
In pop music they talk about difficult second album syndrome, when a band score a big hit with their debut and then realise that a) their entire lives thus far went into the first one and new things to sing about are thin on the ground and b) reaction to the follow-up was always going to be more rigorous in any case.
In football today is the first anniversary of Jack Ross becoming manager of Hibernian. Is difficult second year syndrome ahead of him? Well, that would suggest the first year had been an instant classic, and this music-loving coach would not claim that. But he could probably do with his team beating Celtic next Saturday.
Two months ago after a long sit-down chat with Ross I reckoned Hibs’ unbeaten start would probably be rated seven out of ten by the fans. He impressed that day with his passion for the game - the guy used to collect programmes - but also a quiet assurance and thoughtful nature confirming there were bigger tests to come: Rangers at home, Celtic away and the one he point-blank refused to discuss, despite my best efforts, the Scottish Cup semi-final.
We know how these matches went. A battling point against Rangers, a meek 3-0 loss at Celtic (who produced their best performance of the campaign, according to manager Neil Lennon) and defeat at Hampden.
Hibs did not play badly against Hearts but that almost doesn’t matter in these games. This was another dismal day at the national stadium, another Hearts semi-final derby triumph, and a victory for the rivals from a division below. These were the things that mattered to the Hibee faithful afterwards.
Ross told me he doesn’t tune in to social media, which is probably just as well. Some of the criticism was simply ranting but the dignity of print, or at least words on a screen, some of which were spelled correctly, had been conferred. “Every opinion is given credence,” said Ross of the great online democracy, which is a kinder way of saying there are one or bampots out there.
But a few supporters made a forensic deep-dig into Hibs’ approach to the semi, wondering why the players were talking about it being “just another game”. They compared this with Robbie Neilson’s remark about how his players had been prepared for the tie from a long way back.
Similarly, they took issue with Ross beforehand thanking Alan Stubbs for winning the cup in 2016 which meant his team didn’t go into the game with the dead-weight of history on their shoulders. They reckoned that manager and team were too laid-back, for which they paid the price.
Were they? It was a tight game which Hibs could have won if they’d scored with their penalty. If that had happened then whatever the nature of Ross’s preparations they would have been hailed a success. But Scottish football’s normal state is one of agitation. Nervous fans will look at a manager being cool, calm and collected on the touchline and not turning purple, which Ross never does, and shriek: “What’s wrong with you, man? Why aren’t you at risk of spontaneous combustion like me?”
Hearts definitely had a cause, a grudge and appeared to be taking on the entire Scottish football establishment in that game and these were things Hibs couldn’t manufacture. If they’d lost then Neilson wouldn’t have come out with the line about the semi being the big one. He wouldn’t have said: “All our hopes and dreams were wrapped up in winning this. Now it’s back to Cappielow and the Indodrill.”
Because Ross’s team had the chance to take the lead in extra-time, Hearts supporters rejoiced in the fact the Leith team had “Hibsed it”, which was a jibe regularly tossed the club’s way in the seasons before 2016. Back then, Hibs had a cause: to prove doubters wrong, to finally win the blasted cup. It’s difficult to believe, with only one of the heroes from four years ago playing against Hearts, that there was complacency in the ranks. Surely Martin Boyle - an unused sub that famous day - and the rest would have had sufficient motivation to want to create their own stories.
To return to the music analogy, a taunt which I half-expected to hear but didn’t was “boyband”. Just as well, because it doesn’t really apply to this team. It was Neil Lennon who coined it the day he replaced Stubbs and specifically he was talking about Hibs sides who could be really impressive against the Old Firm and then go out the following week and lose to Motherwell.
This is not what Ross’s team do. They can beat Motherwell (at least once, his first match in charge) but it’s the big games in which the faithful are still waiting for a result to announce that Hibs really mean business and that category includes Aberdeen who seem to have their favourites’ number right now.
The poorest performance in Ross’s Hibee year was a 3-1 loss to Hearts at Easter Road back in March. Thinking about how Lennon might have reacted that night, I asked him about the game and whether he’d let rip in the dressing-room afterwards. No, he said, but he hoped the players had all decided: “We never want to feel like this again.”
They must do after that semi, irrespective of how close the contest had been. Boyband? Perhaps this Hibs are the opposite, a heavy metal combo. Do they chug along effectively most of the time but on the bigger stage lack a showstopper tune?
Or can they find the killer riff and beat Celtic?
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