TERRY Butcher has put his own, inimitable and ever-positive spin on the tedious domination of Celtic in the Scottish Premiership this season, likening Hibs’ match against the leaders on Sunday to a day at the circus.
After 21 rounds of action, Neil Lennon has yet to oversee a league defeat. The law of averages suggests that, with three games coming up in the space of eight days, the leaders will do well to go into their Scottish Cup date with Aberdeen with that unblemished record intact. But the last two legs of the sequence find them at home to Kilmarnock and St Mirren. Hibs have the best chance of ending the run.
“Every club is striving to do that,” said Butcher as he contemplated his first crack at the champions from the home dugout at Easter Road. “It’s at the point where we are asking ‘who’s going to be the first team to beat Celtic?’
“From their point of view it’s a nice pressure and they want teams to come at them and then be able to pick them off with the assets they have on board.
“It’s a free go for us. It’s like being at the circus when you swing a mallet onto a button and try to ring the bell with your strength.
“It’s like trying to get a 180 at darts or hit the bullseye. It’s like ‘Roll up, roll up – who’s going to have a go at Celtic and be the first ones to beat them?’ I think that’s great. It’s good for Scottish football, not bad.”
Butcher, having been a rigid defender on the park for England and Rangers, has been a rigid defender from the sidelines of Scottish football as a product. He maintained that it was “still exciting to play against Celtic” amid the heat of 90 minutes, even if the conversion of a duopoly into a monopoly since Rangers’ capitulation has made for a phantom title race.
He said: “We play them having lost two games in a row, having been poor against St Mirren. You think: ‘Blimey, is this the last team we want to face?’ But I think it’s the best team we can face – you have to tighten up and batten down the hatches and then fight like you have never done before.
“If you don’t do that then you will get absolutely smashed. I’ve seen them come to the capital and demolish Hearts and do it to others as well. But, against us this season, it’s been 1-1 and 1-0 and the games have been tight.
“That’s what we want again. After the first half against St Mirren we can’t wait to get going.”
With a draw and two defeats following the New Year derby victory, it is tempting to speculate that the honeymoon is over for Butcher at Hibs. He has certainly not yet recanted on his belief that the media should be cordially and energetically accommodated, and nor has he changed the way he manages player morale.
Rather than scald the players for their performance against St Mirren with a punishing Monday training session followed by a finger-pointing lecture, he stuck to the usual routine of tea, cake and conversation.
“The reaction of the players this week has been terrific. We had tea and cake on Monday lunchtime and talked through things and players were very honest,” said the manager.
“We got things out in the open in terms of what we did do well and what we didn’t. The second half against St Mirren was better and the reaction in training has been excellent – the best we’ve had. Some of the tackles have been scary given that I’ve only got four fit defenders, but it’s been good.”
Lest anybody should mistake Butcher for a soft touch, he said he was happy that it did not go unnoticed that he only named six players on the bench last Saturday. This was not a consequence of the kind of desperate head-count Gary Locke has been undertaking of late on the other side of Edinburgh, but rather a deliberate act.
Butcher will only name seven substitutes if he feels they are all deserving of first-team recognition, he affirmed.
“I don’t like giving places away willy-nilly and people on the bench should have done good service at the club and worked hard in training,” he said.
“The squad was down to the bare bones and I felt that, if you put young boys on the bench, they get a false view. They think they’ve made it and my view is that the younger ones don’t deserve to be on the bench right now as they have not done anything to deserve it.
“That applies to senior players as well as they have been injured, haven’t been in the squad or training and that was a reason as well. [Tim] Clancy and [Kevin] Thomson are injured and others have been injured and not featured in training. I’m glad you picked up on that and I hope other people did as well.”
Butcher said he remained hopeful of adding to his squad before the Celtic match, but only in the form of loans. Adam Rooney?
“We’re not able to pay money for him,” he said of his former Inverness charge. “I believe he’s looking for a permanent deal away from Oldham and we’re looking more to loans.”
• In yesterday’s Scotsman, we wrongly stated that Alex Harris was represented in contract negotiations with Hibernian by his mother and stepfather. He was in fact represented by his mother and godfather. We apologise for the error.