Old Firm, old tactics

As Alex McLeish takes over at Rangers he joins an ever increasing list of departures from Easter Road to one of the Old Firm, Jill Birnie says

My first experience of seeing my team, Hibernian, being preyed upon by the Old Firm, came as a very young child when Colin Stein, the high-scoring centre-foward, was poached by Rangers. My own children are now about the same age as I was when Stein was cruelly rem­oved from my life. In the weeks since Alex McLeish departed to become Rangers man­ager they have gone through the complete spec­­trum of emotion that I went through back in the days of black and white television. Why us again? Why can’t they leave us alone? I made the reassuring noises to them, the very ones that my own father had made to me.

This has happened since the very first mom­ent the Glasgow giants existed – Celtic pinched almost an entire (very successful) Hibernian side when they they formed in 1881 and almost put our club out of business as a consequence. Since then, a list of names can be put together by even the most youthful Hibee: Goram, Collins, Latapy, Agathe…

Why us? Because, despite the continuous drip of asset-stripping over the decades, we continue to uncover talent. If it wasn’t us, it would be Hearts (as has happened shamelessly in the past decade) or Aberdeen or Dun­dee United.

A harder question for us to answer is why McLeish wanted to go. This was the man who said on the pitch at the end of the 1999 season: “I am here for as long as you want me.” This is the man who continually told the world he still “had a job to do” at Hibs and that he would not walk away until he had done this job he had started.

However, this is also the man who played the public relations card to tremendous effect throughout his Hibernian career. Perhaps this shameless wooing of the media and public  was the most crucial aspect of McLeish’s man­agerial stop at Easter Road. Despite Hibernian having a poor season, amid rumours of a dressing room split, he has progressed on to bigger things, maybe suspecting this was the time to get out.

In previous years, pre-Bosman, it was some­-times possible to control whether the Old Firm got their hands on our players. Dundee United successfully stopped Rangers signing  Richard Gough at the first time of asking by selling  him to Tottenham. Similarly, Hibs pre­vented Rangers accessing Gordon Durie in 1986, by tempting Ken Bates. But ultimately, both end­ed up at Ibrox anyway. Today, Bosman and freedom of contract have eroded the ability of smaller clubs to hold on to their assets. The damage this is doing the game as a whole is evident for all to see.

Given the nature of McLeish’s departure – and the destination – it would take a very tolerant Hibee to wish him well in his new professional capacity. Football has unwritten rules. McLeish committed the cardinal sin as far as Hibernian are concerned, and not only that, he did it in a manner which was indecent, with not one mention of thanks or farewell to either players or fans. The man who would have been a Hibernian legend has ruined any chance there was of this now being the case.

In contrast, Franck Sauzée, installed as the new manager, loves Hibernian. His affection is both endearing and genuine. The fans trust him. But more than that, he is better known than Alex McLeish on a European level. Per­haps McLeish’s departure will come to be seen as a blessing in disguise, even a lucky escape.

From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month