The Struggle for Style
Whether it’s a fallacy or not, Hibernian Football Club have a persistent image amongst some of being a team that plays with that much over-used expression ‘flair’. The notion of a good deal of style, flash and panache has surrounded the team over the years – even when it has clearly not necessarily been deserved.
Currently the club has an uneasy battle with this image as new manager, Finn, Mixu Paatelainen shoulders the task of improving Hibernian’s fortunes with the considerable disadvantage of a less accomplished batch of players than have worn the famous green-and white jersey over the past few seasons. This situation being the result of the heavy sales of many of Hibs’ young and talented squad to be replaced by one or two arguably more humdrum professionals. As I write, it has been my observation that much criticism or certainly comment by the club’s fan base is directed at the lack of flowing football played at grass height. This opinion is probably understandable but the style (or lack of) is arguably necessary as the first team travels through a transitional stage.
Looking back, it has been my pleasure to watch three memorable and entertaining Hibs teams over the years. The most recent was Tony Mowbray’s attractive side prior to his leaving to be replaced by former Hibs hero, John Collins. What I found fascinating about Mowbray was his psychological outlook on the game and I’m sure this insight helped give his mainly younger players the confidence and courage to express themselves in a way that would often delight and enthrall. Not only was the former Celtic player’s preferred style one of keeping possession and good quality passing, but also that this should be performed at pace. When those qualities come together they become a powerful and withering weapon that disarms opponents’ defences frequently – doing something well is okay – doing something at pace can be completely disorientating as many teams who buckled in front of this pretty and effective style were to find out.
As a Hibs fan I particularly enjoyed watching much of what Alex McLeish’s teams had to offer. McLeish managed to pull off a couple of masterstrokes in enrolling Franck Sauzee and Russell Latapy who very much regulated the team’s style and put into place their manager’s wishes on the pitch – surely the type of player that every manager must seek. For me this was another side that abided by the supposed Hibernian ethos of pleasing football. This team owned some very good experienced professionals scattered around the side played to a formation that suited them well with Sauzee controlling the flow of the play – particular in his latter libero days. In which he would fling long crossfield balls that completely changed the pattern of play
Finally during my time watching the Hibs there was the superb and complete outfit that Eddie Turnbull meticulously assembled in the 1970s’. It’s maybe an age bias matter – the fact that I was at a most impressionable age when Turnbull’s men were ripping teams apart, but I firmly believe this was the best and most attractive Hibs team I have personally watched. Younger fans these days will be well within their rights to disagree though. It might be stated that football was a very different games in those days too. Heavier pitches, general fitness levels, diet etc were very different to now. To my eyes there was something very unique about watching that team though. They were innovative and one might say ‘modern’ in their outlook. Remember this was in an era when total football as practiced by the Dutch national side was just around the corner, things were about to change very quickly and would never be the same again. Seldom had been seen the likes of a full back as John Brownlie was, galloping down the wing on an overlap. This Hibs team played with great gusto and freedom and were a complete joy to watch, not least for some extremely classy footballers within the ranks. At Easter Road in those day’s I never wanted the games to end.
So what to make of this ‘style’ image surrounding Hibernian then? My personal belief is that much of it emanates from the days of ‘The Famous Five’. Clearly during the mid-fifties Smith, Johnstone, Reilly, Turnbull and Ormond were weaving some pretty fantastic patterns with that heavy old leather football. I think it fair to say that their like had not been seen before – again Hibernian the innovators – and not just away from the field of play. Talking to the fortunate souls that were able to witness them first hand it’s evident that the ‘Five’ were going where others hadn’t trodden prior. A centre-forward Reilly alternating with a winger, the whole line shuffling across one place, even the great Gordon smith playing in flimsy baseball boots on frozen pitches that he may still produce his delightful and deft touches for a packed and adoring Easter Road! One should remember that this was in the days that football was somewhat regimented, players stuck rigidly to their positions and stuck to the jobs they were assigned to do and little else. The Famous Five changed all that.
Smith, Johnstone, Reilly, Turnbull and Ormond ‘The Famous Five’
Any other particular reasons for the ‘style’ tag then? Perhaps not. One might look back at the origins of the club and in particular the individuals that played in those halcyon early years and wonder if there is a link or a reason. It’s my understanding though that in those era’s Hibernian sides could be as robust in their play as the next team, perhaps even more so. Certainly there was some criticism forwarded at the club in those days but it should be said that the motives behind those criticisms may be of dubious quality. Perhaps a possible adherence to ‘getting stuck in’ might be explained by suggesting that the Hibs most often had something to prove to their peers at that time. Always having to kick against the sticks of officialdom and resentment.
What is interesting is the opinion of the modern-day Hibernian supporter. There will be continual debates about ‘style against substance’ but it is my humble belief that there are a significantly greater number of Hibernian supporters who want and need their team to play the ‘right’ way than some other teams. These debates continue however with valid points being put forward on both sides it has to be said. I always have my own simple answer to this question – that good results and good football are not mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed quite the reverse principle is the case. Playing the game The Hibernian Way will bear fruit along the way. What’s more we’ll all go home after the final whistle with something to cheer and hearten us through those long, cold winter days. Something to talk enthusiastically about amongst friends whilst looking forward to the next ninety-minute installment of Hibernian’s attractive and romantic history.
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