The kind of victory-snatching performances that could have the winners charged with grand larceny are not an uncommon sight in football, but nowhere do they seem to be more prevalent than in derby matches.
A capacity for taking a pummelling as a prelude to poaching the one goal that will settle the outcome is a form of defiance that endears its exponents to their own support, while simultaneously creating a tempestuous resentment among their rivals.
Hence the mood swings of the followers of Hibernian and Hearts on Wednesday, when the former gave a demonstration of deep-rooted rage at the front door of Easter Road Stadium and the latter traipsed lightly off to happy-hour revelry. For the truly impartial, the enduring impression was that neither extreme was warranted; it would be only too depressingly apparent that the preceding Scottish League Cup quarter-final had been perversely engrossing as a consequence of the pitch having been littered with mediocre players.
If a theatre production – comedy, drama, musical or any combination thereof – featured such a paucity of talent, it would almost certainly have the singular experience of opening and closing on the same night.
Of course, the analogy between football and show business is only fractionally valid. While the audiences at both buy tickets in anticipation of being entertained, the competitiveness and physicality of professional sport necessitate elements that would seem out of place on the stage. For example, the Phantom of the Opera is not having his heels clipped while reaching for a high note and nobody is shoulder-charging Hamlet in the middle of the soliloquy.
But patrons of the theatre know that if Michael Crawford is delivering the aria or Ian McKellen articulating the bard’s incomparable lines they are in good company. In this respect, the devotion of Scottish football supporters continues to astonish. The standard of performance appears to have become almost an irrelevance in the matter of a fan deciding whether or not to head for the turnstiles.
Despite live television by a terrestrial broadcaster, BBC Scotland, more than 17,000 arrived at Easter Road. Had a bottom-of-the-bill band of strictly limited talent advertised a concert at the same venue, it is unlikely the “gate” would have extended beyond the players’ close friends and relations.
The supporter’s expansive dedication, however, embraces the right to complain and those who were disgusted by the 1-0 defeat by their fiercest rivals clearly regarded this latest disappointment as a perfectly legitimate reason to demand the removal of the manager, Pat Fenlon, who duly resigned yesterday.
This hostility was not, of course, born of one bad experience, but by a series of let-downs over the past two years that include appalling defeats at home (5-1 by Hearts in the Scottish Cup final) and in Europe (7-0 at home to Malmo in the Europa League). Even so, Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, did no more to win the match on Wednesday than Fenlon did to lose it.
While some allowance may be made for the general youthfulness and inexperience of Locke’s side, both men were served by largely pedestrian and uninspired operatives. If Hibs appeared likely to batter their rivals into submission in the opening half-hour, they failed to do so because of serious failings in attack and the excellent form of the Hearts goalkeeper, Jamie MacDonald. The Hibs “striker”, Rowan Vine, for instance, appeared to give Neil Lennon more trouble on Twitter than he did the Hearts defence on the field of play. Yet victory for Hearts was determined by one swing of Ryan Stevenson’s right foot, the chance arising from a poor header by defender James McPake. By such moments of sheer randomness are managerial careers frequently threatened – and terminated.
Ferguson’s personality clashes were minimal
Sir Alex Ferguson’s reputation, like those of most extravagantly famous figures, is a multi-stranded concept, shaped by a wide variety of perceptions that are purveyed by innumerable observers. Given this range of influences and the feverishness people of his celebrity tend to generate among admirers and critics, it is hardly surprising that a proper perspective is often mislaid.
The tiresome, unimaginative, trite – and outdated – use of “the hairdryer” as a way of describing an errant player feeling the hot breath of the manager’s ire on his face is probably the commonest example of lazy presumptuousness among commentators utterly unburdened by the task of forming a view based on anything other than hearsay.
Similarly, an entire lore appears to have sprung from what are generally described as “notorious” personality collisions between Ferguson and some of the highest-profile and most talented players to have come under his charge. They include David Beckham, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
If, at times, these eruptions have tended to command more column inches than some of Ferguson’s unprecedented achievements (totalling 49 major trophies with Aberdeen and Manchester United), they have also assumed a place in the public consciousness that is almost grotesquely disproportionate to their significance.
It was left to Ferguson himself this week to offer a more realistic perspective. During a sell-out (3,000-strong audience) Q & A show at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow, the new retiree said: “I know a lot has been made of things like that, but, you know, we’re talking about maybe half-a-dozen major issues in 27 years. I don’t think that’s too bad.”
It is especially “not too bad” when it is remembered, too, that, during those 27 years at a high-octane club such as Manchester United, Ferguson would have overseen hundreds of players. The clashes also reinforce the wisdom of the long-held dictum with which he invariably arms the endless stream of aspiring managers who automatically seek his advice: “Never go looking for confrontation, because it’ll come to you.”