John Blackley starred in a Hibernian team that were rarely condemned for their rough-house tactics. Turnbull’s Tornadoes knew how to look after themselves but they were more likely to be defined by their talent.
Blackley himself was a cultured sweeper who relied on guile rather than brute force. Still, he was heartened to read of the criticisms being flung in his former club’s direction after Saturday’s encounter with Celtic since it sounded to him like confirmation they were on the way to losing their reputation as soft touches.
It seems to Blackley that Hibs have reconnected with a desire to win. In recent years you suspect teams have come to view a trip to Easter Road with delight, knowing that it presented a more than realistic chance of obtaining three points. Indeed, Hibs’ dreadful home record in recent times is ample evidence to suggest that visiting sides are right to feel this way – only two home victories in the league this calendar year.
Saturday’s match with champions Celtic did not help improve on that record since it ended in a draw after James Forrest’s equaliser with 13 minutes left, following Paul Heffernan’s first-half opener. However, while it earned only a point for Hibs, there was sufficient bite about the performance to have Neil Lennon complaining afterwards about what he perceived to be the overly aggressive tactics adopted by Pat Fenlon’s side.
It led to a Twittersphere row, where Rowan Vine, singled out for criticism by Lennon for a late “rugby-esque” challenge on Darnell Fisher, responded by saying he would get his “mate” Alan Shearer to send the Celtic manager another “size 9 Umbro Special in the dish”. This was in reference to Shearer’s kick at Lennon during a Leicester City v Newcastle United game in 1998. Vine later sent a message apologising to Lennon while he also admitted he did not in fact know Shearer.
While it was unseemly and also vaguely amusing there was something else to take from the fall-out. The memory of Hibs’ limp capitulation at the hands of Malmo is still too fresh to be able to claim that Easter Road is now on the list of inhospitable places to visit. However, perhaps teams facing the prospect of playing there must now travel with a little more apprehension.
With Aberdeen and then Hearts due to arrive at the stadium over the next eight days, the brouhaha is perhaps timely since it gives these teams something else to think about. Blackley imagines Fenlon feeling secretly pleased at the row that developed over the weekend. He also contends that Lennon’s worries prior to tonight’s Champions League clash with Ajax are not Hibs’ concerns.
“That’s what the Hibs fans are demanding – that desire and will to win,” said Blackley, who is now 65 and played over 250 times for the Easter Road side, in two spells. “I just feel that the Hibs players have to be conscious of the demands of the Hibs manager, not the demands of Neil Lennon. Things have been tough for the team so they know they are going to have to put a little extra effort in to win game,” he added. “Tackling is part of the game, but you don’t want it eradicated completely. It is to be expected, especially when you come with the credentials that Celtic come armed with.
“They have so many quality players that you have to match it some way. It’s got nothing to do with Hibs that Celtic are playing Ajax. Hibs have got three points to try and go out and play for and in the end they got a point, a good point.”
A modern stadium like Easter Road cannot hope to match the sense of dread that Broomfield Park once inspired in teams, even those of the quality of Eddie Turnbull’s fine Hibs side of the Seventies.
Blackley remembers feeling glad to tick off away fixtures against Airdrieonians.
“We would always go to Airdrie knowing what you would get – a hard game, a hard battle,” he said. “Airdrie at Easter Road was not such a problem. But Broomfield was a different matter. You knew you were going to get hard tackling and comments from the crowd. And you were never let down. You knew you were going to get it and you got it.”
As Blackley recalled, the intimidation had begun before the referee had even blown the first whistle. “The crowd were already baying for you and then the players came out – it was a tough, tough place to go and get points.”
He singled out Derek Whiteford, Paul Jonquin and Davie Marshall, as well as his former Hibs team-mate Jim Black, who played for Airdrie before and after his spell at Easter Road, as being awkward customers who could handle themselves in a physical confrontation.
“But that was a big part of the game – the physical challenge,” added Blackley. “It’s been taken out of it a bit now. Years ago Jim McLean and Fergie [Alex Ferguson] would go on about protecting ball players and they had every right to do that. There had to be some assurance that these skilful players could play football without being taken out of the game. But I feel now it has gone too much the other way.”
As for Hibs, Blackley feels the hard-earned point on Saturday has come at an ideal time – before upcoming games against Aberdeen and Hearts – the latter in next midweek’s League Cup quarter-final.
“I am quite sure the fans will have taken something from it,” he said. “They will have got a wee lift. I just think it was an important result for Hibs. Every club looks for a turning point. And if you are going to give Celtic a hard game, then that is a huge turning point.”