‘Hibsed It’: The Sequel?
After Hibernian’s 3-0 League Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of St Johnstone last weekend, Scottish football once again laughed and threw out the adage of “Hibsing It”. Is this accusation justified, and if so, what are the factors that have contributed to this weak mentality? Callum Watt examines how the club has reached this point and what has to be done to eradicate underachievement in Leith.
The term ‘Hibsed it’ was coined by rival fans back in 2013/14. It poked fun at Hibernian’s seeming inability to get results in big games, but more accurately referred to their continued failure, even from winning positions. Hibs v Hamilton in the 2013/14 Premiership play-off final epitomised this perfectly. Hibs were 2-0 up after a Jason Cummings brace in the first leg and it looked like they were on course to narrowly avoid relegation. However, Hamilton overturned that deficit in the second leg and won on penalties, subsequently ending Hibs’ 15-year stay in Scotland’s top-flight.
The following two seasons continued this trend, with Hibs fans suffering far more than their fair share of misery. A 14/15 Scottish Cup semi-final loss to Falkirk, despite dominating the match, was followed merely a month later by a promotion play-off defeat at the hands of Rangers. Season 15/16 saw Hibs defeated in the League Cup final by a last-minute Ross County winner, and a similar outcome was felt after atrocious defending and two Falkirk goals in the final ten minutes of their Play-Off fixture consigned Hibs to the Championship for a third season running. However, Hibs came from behind to win the Scottish Cup in 2016 and John McGinn’s post-match interview seemed to put an end to Hibs’ soft-touch stereotype; “Everyone questioned our character and our bottle… but I guess we must’ve Hibsed it!”
Neil Lennon came in and said he wanted to toughen up “boyband” Hibs even further – something which he did relatively well, losing just 11 of the 30 ‘big games’ he faced (vs Hearts, Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen). Now obviously big games aren’t the be all and end all, but for Hibs fans, who like to think they’re the third biggest club in Scotland, at least competing against these teams is a must. Recently however, and especially since Lennon’s questionable departure, such results tend not to go Hibs’ way. For example, in Hibs’ seven games against Rangers since Lennon left, Hibs have won none. Their most recent outing in the League Cup semi-final saw them turned over 3-0 by St Johnstone. So, why is the ‘Hibsed it’ mentality creeping back, and what can be done to prevent it taking hold once again?
When Jack Ross was appointed Hibernian manager in November 2019, social media was awash with Sunderland fans, Ross’ previous club before getting sacked, warning Hibs fans what they were getting themselves into. They claimed he often played for draws and couldn’t handle the big occasion when it mattered most. Hibs fans could be forgiven, though, for dismissing such negative notions when a successful ex-St Mirren manager had just signed for the club following Paul Heckingbottom’s calamitous reign.
Season two of Netflix’s Sunderland ‘til I Die starred Ross as head coach and showed how his team fluffed a 1-0 lead in the EFL League One promotion play-off final. This brought the worry of Ross not being cut out for big games to the forefront of even the casual Hibs fan’s mind, and these last few months have reinforced such a concern.
Aside from a standout 2-0 win v Hearts at Tynecastle on Boxing Day 2019, the general feeling amongst the Hibernian faithful is that Ross’ Hibs side do not have what it takes to beat the likes of Hearts and Aberdeen, or even compete with the Old Firm. Since Ross was appointed Hibernian manager, he’s faced 17 ‘big games’ and has won just 2. That’s a win percentage of just under 12% in semi-finals or matches v Hearts, Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen. Is this poor record down to Ross’ tactics? Well, he certainly doesn’t think so.
The BBC’s Kenny Macintyre rightfully questioned whether Ross felt he had gotten anything wrong after Hibs’ shock semi-final defeat to St Johnstone on Saturday, a question which Hibs fans listening to Sportsound would’ve been wanting answers to. However, instead of playing it safe and rattling off a few cliché answers, Ross dodged the question and complained about the journalist’s tone of voice.
The general consensus on social media after hearing this interview was that Ross is a man under pressure and potentially beginning to fear for his job. Although in fairness, Hibs did play relatively well despite losing 3-0, with 56% possession, 13 shots, 5 corners, and 66 ‘dangerous attacks’. This indicates that perhaps the problem lies elsewhere.
As any Hibs fan will concur, the classic Hibs ‘glorious failure’ is to play well, sometimes even go in front, and still find a way to let the fans down. Saturday’s game v St Johnstone at Hampden was a great example of this – Jamie Murphy had two gilt-edged chances to open the scoring within seconds of each other.
The first looked easier to score than miss as the ball broke to him just outside the six-yard box, but his tame effort was right at Zander Clark. The second was the rebound which just needed slotted into the net, but Murphy decided to dink the goalkeeper and the ball rattled off the crossbar. Similarly glaring opportunities were missed back in October when Hibs faced Hearts in the Scottish Cup – Kevin Nisbet had a penalty saved, Hearts scored theirs four minutes later, and Hibs collapsed.
It’s not only at the top end of the pitch where Hibs’ frailties lie – they also don’t defend very well (not the best combination for aspiring cup winners). Continuing to use Saturday as the baseline measurement of Hibs’ poor big-game results, Jason Kerr’s opener exploited their defensive weaknesses. A simple corner into the box which isn’t defended properly gives Kerr the simple task of nodding the ball into the net and scoring against the run of play. Both Ryan Porteous and Paul Hanlon are ‘marking’ him, but pose little challenge as he rises well above them and meets the ball mid-flight.
The traditional ‘Hibs way’ of playing is good, possession-based football, and there is evidence to suggest the current squad are capable of this. Against Aberdeen at Pittodrie last November, Hibs had 62% possession, attempted 520 passes (75% of which were accurate), and the concentration of play was in Aberdeen’s half 55% of the time. However, Hibs turned over possession 191 times and had just two shots on target, consequently losing the game 2-0.
Now, football is not an exact science and many may be rolling their eyes at these statistics, which are ultimately irrelevant if you don’t win the match, but they prove that Hibs are capable of playing nice football and just lack that creativity to open up tight-knit defences. A new defender to shore up at the back, an additional striker who can get shots on goal out of nothing, and the much-welcomed return of Scott Allan may just be enough to turn Hibs’ fortunes in big games around and turn possession into wins.
As stated, the ‘Hibsed it’ label comes mainly from Hibs’ inability to hold onto leads when it matters, and an easy argument to make would be that the pressure from the fans in the stands is too much for the players. However, that argument can instantly be debunked this season, with a complete absence of fans and yet, the same keeps happening.
Hibs played Celtic at Easter Road last November and were 2-0 up until the 79th minute when they conceded twice in 12 minutes to draw the match 2-2. Now, unless the pressure from the paramedics was too much for paid professional footballers to take, the issue of being bottle jobs must lie elsewhere. Besides, the opposite should be true – a packed out Easter Road chanting should motivate the players and push them over the line, not scare them into making mistakes.
Listening to the Hibs Talk Podcast Live on Sunday night, a mere 24 hours after the St Johnstone game, I expected a rant-filled hour of calls for Jack Ross to go and the defence replaced. However, it drew my attention to the statistic that Hibernian have competed in 24 Scottish Cup and League Cup finals in their history, but have won just six. City rivals Hearts, on the other hand, have competed in fewer finals (23) and have won double the trophies.
Such is the nature of football rivalry, Hibs fans will goad Hearts fans for not winning the League Cup since 1963, but they’ve still won it once more than Hibs. The bigger picture from this statistic, though, is that the ‘Hibsing it’ mentality is deep-rooted. It is an issue which has run throughout the club since its inception in August 1875. Twenty-four finals played, 75% of them have been defeats. If Hibs’ ability to lose big games was marked by the SQA, they’d have a solid A+.
In addition, Ross was quoted on Wednesday as saying he was happy to get to the League Cup semi-final, but Hibs got there by beating no team higher than Championship level. This is potentially worrying for Hibs fans, many of whom already want Ross out, as it indicates a mentality issue at the club. If Hibernian want to be competing alongside Aberdeen for third spot and European football, their goals have to stretch further than falling short at the semi-final stage of a competition in which they had the easiest draw.
Since the 2016 Scottish Cup final, the identity of the club has changed for the better. The Persevered Trophy Tour was a great initiative to strengthen the club’s community ties, and these have been building ever since. However, on the pitch, things haven’t been so plain-sailing recently – yet the club continues to live off the Cup success.
I enjoy re-watching the Cup final highlights as much as the next Hibs fan – it was probably the best day of my life – but they need to move on. The club continue to produce the Persevered rhetoric after four-and-a-half years – if the club truly wants to progress and move forward, there can be no room for sentiment. No keeping Darren McGregor and David Gray because they are club legends – if they’re not adding to the squad, get rid. No signing Stephen McGinn because his brother played in the final – he averages 11 minutes per game for the five games he’s featured in.
With Hibs under the new ownership of Ron Gordon, fans can look forward as he stamps his authority on the club. He will not settle for sub-par performances on the pitch, and if a positive change in mentality requires managerial replacement, so be it.
He may, however, be looking at the long-term process – Jack Ross has only been manager little over a year, and the COVID-19 pandemic is not the ideal situation to have engulf your first full season in charge. Football clubs can often be too quick to chop and change manager, so perhaps Gordon is looking at building a stable and sustainable club for years to come. Whatever his plans are, he should have the full backing of the Hibernian fans as the club looks to progress from its current position.
In order to maintain this backing however, it is imperative that the club ensures that ‘Hibsed It’: The Sequel doesn’t turn into a sorry trilogy.
All statistics from FlashScore.com and SofaScore.com