I’M PROBABLY on a loser mentioning Hibernian in the same breath as fine art, and it will only invite more ridicule. But after the dreadful events of last Sunday, rounded off by a late-night TV compilation of all those big, hopeless hoofs up the park which must have had the whole nation chortling, I’m past caring anyway.
This, in any case, isn’t a story about Hibs’ artistry because as the long-suffering faithful will glumly concede, that hasn’t been much in evidence for a while. But it does feature a gallery owner, name of Glenn Ross, who has operated out of small premises in Edinburgh’s New Town for 46 years. Now, if we go back 46 years in Hibs’ history we find that Pat Stanton was already a regular, as was Peter Cormack. Colin Stein had not yet skedaddled and the teenybopper screams for Peter Marinello were only just beginning. These were stirring days, not even the best of them, although they seem like it now.
Hibs fans are doing this a lot: looking back, losing themselves in the past, even past relegations which didn’t seem as bad as this one. But Glenn’s own connections with the club go further back than 46 years. In the too-brief Jock Stein era, he was on the club’s books, a naive kid who made the mistake of placing his clothes on Jimmy O’Rourke’s peg then finding them dumped in the communal bath; who bet Willie Hamilton half a crown he couldn’t chip a ball into a lamppost bin and of course the wayward genius did, winning another 2s 6d for double-or-quits with the “bad” foot.
In 1961 Glenn was among the big crowd when Hibs beat the mighty Barcelona. “Our biggest ever, I’m convinced,” he told me when I called on him last Tuesday. “I stood on top of the high terracing and as far back as Lochend Pond they were coming, as far back as Craigentinny.”
In 1958 he squeezed into a Hillman with a goodly number of uncles for the sometimes single-file journey to Hampden – another corker of a crowd with the uncles barely able to fish their Woodbines out of their pockets. Even further back, just six weeks old, he was sneaked out of the house by his father wrapped in swaddling for his Easter Road baptism – “Mother was furious but Gordon Smith scored two.”
Glenn is 68 now. His mum died ten years ago, unable to hang on any longer for the Scottish Cup she so dearly wanted (that ’58 final ended in defeat, like all the rest). His dad, 96, “just cried” when Sunday’s demotion was confirmed. His son, an astrophysicist in California, had been “unable to speak” since then. And Glenn on Tuesday was fighting lack of sleep. “The twittering doesn’t help,” he said. Birdsong and memories of Michael Nelson’s cloud-scudding clearances – what a combination.
This is the killing thing for Hibs fans: the poverty of the football. In 1979-80 when the club went down there was the consolation of George Best. In 1997-98 there had been circus tricks by Chic Charnley in the beginning and hope at the end through Alex McLeish. This time? One timid, feckless, desultory showing after another. I know as supporters, of whatever persuasion, we have a tendency to enshroud the past in thick velvet and prod at the recent with sharp sticks, but I would say these have been the worst performances by a team in green shirts with the lovely white sleeves that I’ve ever seen.
This time there doesn’t seem much hope. A derided chairman who most fans now think is only hanging on for the president’s job at the SFA. A manager who somehow made Hibs duller than the team put out by Pat Fenlon. High prices (£80 too high if you bought a Hibs season ticket when Premiership status seemed a given) and a general disaffection for the game coupled with the worry all over the land that once these plastic seats have popped up and the people have drifted off to do something else, they might never snap down again.
Regarding the chairman, I don’t know. With each failure of his choices of manager I’ve sought an interview, but he never speaks, not to anyone. Regarding the current boss, I keep thinking back to the interview I did with Terry Butcher in February when he impressed me hugely. I’m always looking for evidence of the rounded man beyond the round ball and Terry obliged. We talked about Deep Purple and Turner seascapes. In fact we talked so much about other things that I was worried I’d done him a disservice in my piece, that it was football-lite. As the season rumbled on, eventually careered out of control, I began to wonder if I’d portrayed him all too accurately. Was the chat about Smoke on the Water really just smoke and mirrors? Where were the signs of a football philosophy? Or – yikes – was the lump upfield the football philosophy?
I didn’t think there was much hope but then I attended Friday’s protest meeting, called by the supporters’ association. This wasn’t a pub rammy or a greetin’ meetin’, although grown men did threaten to cry. It was angry without getting remotely personal and if you were a complete cynic you might have thought it soft in the tackle, a bit like the current team, newly broken up. But I reckon you’d be way off beam to think that the man who evoked the spirit of Hands Off Hibs when Joe Baker kissed the Easter Road turf doesn’t mean business, or that Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers hasn’t had enough of mismanagement and those in charge not caring about Hibs as much as he does.
The fans won’t trust Petrie to appoint another manager, should another be needed. Some supporters have had enough of Butcher already – I still think he should be given time to build his own team. But they must play better football than we’ve seen thus far. Petrie, in his apology to fans, promised this. In any case, the flair principle is part of Hibs’ unwritten charter. Like West Ham United fans who won’t accept survival at the expense of style, like Everton fans with their “School of Science: Reopened” banners, some supporters are funny like that.
After the meeting I caught up with Glenn again. He was about to re-open the gallery, and to phone Berkeley to update his son, who was also initiated into the Hibernian way while still a babe in arms. “Since Stephen Hawking has just devised a mathematical formula for England to win the World Cup, maybe I can get Nick to come up with one which will save Hibs,” he laughed.
I never cease to be amazed by supporter devotion. Glenn spoke of his “irrational love” for Hibs and left me with one more yarn. “Remember Lochend Pond? Legend was it was bottomless. As a boy fishing for minnows you were told that a coach and horses plunged into it sometime in the early 1900s and was never seen again.”
There’s a joke about Hawking’s black holes and the Scottish Cup, also not seen around these parts since the early 1900s, but I’ll leave you lot to make it. As ever for Hibs, a suitable period of mourning incorporates a suitable period for mirth. Don’t say we’re not good to you.