The sun shines on the football in Leith these days, as Tony Mowbray’s young side have become Scotland’s latest third force. But can they build on current success? Dianne Millen reports
Every team in Scotland outside the Old Firm is allowed to have what the papers normally refer to as a “bumper season” – a concept depressing in its acknowledgement that no club can hope to actually claim the real honours. Seven years ago, improbably, it was St Johnstone, now of the First Division, who claimed the “third force” honours. Four years ago it was newly promoted Livingston who, rather than dutifully struggling against relegation, instead stormed to third place and Europe. Since then, the club with the most credible claim have been the consistent if somewhat stolid Heart of Midlothian, the only club to finish in the lucrative half of the laughable “top six-bottom six” league split every year since it was introduced. This season, however, the third force-elect are their Edinburgh neighbours, Hibernian. Their youth-fuelled renaissance under ex-Ipswich man Tony Mowbray hints that, for the first time in years, genteel Edinburgh may be rising again as a footballing city to challenge its western cousin.
Beyond their revitalised Leith constituency, something about this Hibernian side seems to have caught the national imagination. Perhaps it’s because these “Hibs kids” are not simply clocking up points, but are doing so in the free-scoring style of which Easter Road was starved during the dark reign of Bobby “if you want entertainment, go to the cinema” Williamson. Perhaps it’s because there’s a reckless glamour about this bunch of cockily peroxided juvenile tearaways, a reminder that being a teenager has always been indisputably, if indefinably, cool.
Or perhaps it just does everyone good to think that the well documented financial crisis of Scottish football has led to at least one club deploying its teenage talent to winning effect. Every club, even the Old Firm, has had to cut back from the ridiculous wages on offer during the early days of the SPL (and, some whisper, since the Bank of Scotland merged with the less overdraft-friendly Halifax Building Society). Some have courted and won a rich benefactor. Retailer Eddie Thompson has enabled Dundee United boss Ian McCall to outbid other clubs for several highly rated players, including Scotland striker Stevie Crawford. And Hearts having recently pulled off a somewhat low-rent Chelsea impersonation by flogging the club to a rich eastern European businessman. Early indications are that the incongruous influx of Lithuanian talent may not turn the club into the national laughing-stock originally anticipated, but it remains to be seen if the hard-to-beat dependability bred by former boss Craig Levein, now at Leicester, will survive under the new management of John Robertson.
Some have simply cut back repeatedly to keep paying the stadium rent. Dundee, for example, are still getting over an unwise flirtation with expensive Latin glamour under Ivano Bonetti, their presence in the relegation zone despite Jim Duffy’s best efforts being evidence of the relentless haemorrhage of no-longer-affordable talent from Tayside.
Other clubs have opted to fall back on youth. Motherwell survived relegation two seasons back only by the grace of Falkirk’s inadequate stadium, but Terry Butcher has steered his depleted side out through the other side of administration by relying on youth (either playing it or, in the case of James McFadden, selling it on). Kilmarnock’s Kris Boyd, the joint holder of the new league’s record for goals scored in one game (five, against Dundee United in September), leads an exciting group of Scottish talent and, further north, a barely pubescent Aberdeen side broke Celtic’s long unbeaten home record and are pushing the Edinburgh clubs all the way this season, helped by prodigies such as the outstanding central defender Zander Diamond (who sounds, but alas does not look, like a Mills & Boon hero).
None, however, has made youth pay off as emphatically as this Hibs side, firmly ensconced in third (albeit some distance behind the Glasgow giants) and enjoying a healthy goal difference as well as a growing reputation. However, east Edinburgh awaited the visit of Dundee with slight angst, following a righteous 3-0 kicking at Rangers the week before and a midweek draw with Motherwell. Nervous whispers of “bursting bubbles” and even “crisis” hung like warm breath on the icy air, all the more stinging since Dundee had turned a 4-1 deficit into a four-all draw on their last visit. For the neutral, however, the match promised a juicy spectacle – so classy, in fact, that it was even witnessed by a beaming Elton John, jauntily sporting an emerald-and-white scarf on his billboard beside the corner flag.
Initially, however, the game lacked the glamour one might expect Elton to demand. A dour sleet dripped through the sort of grey winter afternoon where you can hear the players’ curses and the whirr of cigarette lighters in the far stand. Frustration among the home crowd began to grow as Hibs gained nothing from their frequent forays forward but offside flags, wasted free-kicks and clear penalty turndowns; Dundee, fuelled in part by ex-Hibs striker Tam McManus’s transparent desire to regain face and favour, looked sharp on the counter-attack. Oddly, little really changed after Hibs striker Garry O’Connor, back from a midweek Scotland training camp in Manchester, opened the scoring on 28 minutes – Dundee held firm against the precision tooling of the home side and might have been level, denied only by McManus’s half-hearted finishing and the offside flag against Steve Lovell.
As the tempo slowed towards half-time, the view of ships bobbing in the Firth of Forth over the back of the East Stand seemed rather more distracting than expected. Two minutes from the restart, however, the match moved up a gear. A beautifully worked move, again involving O’Connor, was finished with a lethal near-post header by red-hot right-back Stephen Whittaker and Dundee were mortally wounded, although the flow might have been stemmed had they converted an immediate chance to pull one back. Hibs had begun to turn the screw and, with 15 minutes to go, what was left of Dundee collapsed in the space of two minutes – Stephen Fletcher making it three before Garry O’Connor claimed his double. The four-all game notwithstanding, this one was well and truly over.
With victory secure, at last the nervous East Stand faithful could start running through their repertoire, routinely mocking those few silent Dundee fans still in attendance and, naturally, cheering at the news of Hearts’ simultaneous surrender to Motherwell. After an intelligible rendition of the challenging Tony Mowbray’s Green-and-White Army, they even had energy left to give Tam McManus a standing ovation when he was subbed (although the minority of boos might have prevailed had one of his increasingly desperate attempts to impress gone into the net rather than Row Z).
On top of the crisply accurate passing and the rapier finishes, what makes the current Hibs team so irresistible is their off-the-ball movement. Waves of initially interchangeable lanky youngsters pour forward, constantly reanimating after every trip or fall like video game villains. Such is the effectiveness of this approach that they could even afford to let top scorer and acknowledged chief prodigy Derek Riordan have a relatively quiet game. Even so, the benevolent yet easily exasperated energy that flowed from stand to pitch peaked every time his scrawny figure claimed the ball, spiky peroxide pompadour held defiantly vertical with the sheer collective anticipation.
A relatively injury-free run has helped, although winger Stephen Glass succumbed to the sickening snap of a wrist in this match. But you also have to go all the way back to the goalline to find a genuine weakness in this side. Three times Hibs goalkeeper Simon Brown committed positioning bloopers that the Dundee strike force could and really should have punished. As is so often the case in the grinding mediocrity of the SPL, though, the final ball was rarely good enough and, on the rare occasions when it was, the finish was either tame (McManus), offside (Lovell), or skied hilariously over the bar (the hapless McManus again).
The true test, however, will be the same as it has been for every other team that has challenged the Old Firm – whether they can be more than a one-season wonder. Sparkling as these kids are, many young prodigies have failed to build on their promise. While a young player used to be brought on alongside more experienced performers, these days a 19-year-old might well be the more experienced performer. The resulting wear and tear on bodies and minds may interfere with the realisation of long-term potential, to club and country’s eventual detriment. The other problem with bright young things is that someone else always wants to lure them out of your clutches. No successful Scottish player can avoid being linked with either Rangers (24-year-old captain Ian Murray) or Celtic (Riordan) and keeping this side together may be an even bigger challenge for Mowbray than keeping them out of Edinburgh’s numerous bars and clubs.
And after all, beguiling as this renaissance on the east coast may be to the inhabitants, a look at the league table ought to temper any unseemly over-excitement. Even if Hibs and Hearts sustain this form to the end of the season, it is only third and fourth being disputed, the title itself out of reach.
The very notion of a “third force” depressingly underlines the state of the nation and it’s not only Hibs fans who should find hope in Mowbray’s refusal to accept this as a meaningful achievement. “If Hibs, for one, can keep improving and getting better, then why can’t we close the gap? If, in three or four years’ time, the gap is still 30 or 40 points [it was 30 from first to third last season] then I’ll hold my hands up and say you just can’t compete with the financial side of the game.” It remains to be seen if these refreshing sentiments herald the start of a much needed SPL revolution, but, in the meantime, the green side of Edinburgh won’t be complaining too loudly.
From WSC 218 April 2005. What was happening this month