COLIN Calderwood, when he was at Easter Road, was careful not to find himself alone in a room with a journalist too often. But he did grant me a one-to-one interview.
This was a couple of months into his tenure, so the 3-0 win at Ibrox had already happened and already been found to be freakish, and Hibs had still to be dragged back to Ayr’s Somerset Park for their ritualistic Scottish Cup wimp-out. Calderwood gave a good account of himself that day, though. I wasn’t sure how much pretty football the Hibees would be playing under him – not much, was my guess – but I had to accept the harsh lesson of history on this: every two-and-a-half managers we’ll get a no-nonsense one for whom a prosaic three points is all.
The most telling remark from our hour together was one that he stressed had to be off the record. “This team are soft as s**t,” he said. “In all my time in football I’ve never come across one like it.” He didn’t want this used, I guess, for fear of upsetting the sensibilities of the modern footballer – delicate at the best of times – and of course Easter Road was not unfamiliar with mutinies. But it’s worth considering his comment now, I think, in light of his departure and Hibs’ continued fecklessness.
If you equate “soft” with “artistic” then I think most Hibs fans would accept an element of marshmallow as part of the club’s DNA. Faintly ludicrous, I know, but that’s just who we are. If Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels had labelled Hibs “the most aggressive team in the SPL”, as he did Hearts a fortnight ago, we’d have been appalled. But there are limits to how soft and artistic and “Hello trees, hello sky” and Fotherington-Thomas we’re willing to be, for the amusement of everyone else. At the end of John Hughes’ first season in charge my good friend Rab attended a fans’ awards night. Most of the team were present and they moved round the tables handing out little nuggets about what it was like to play football for Hibernian.
Everyone said how much they loved the swanky training complex in East Lothian, especially on Fridays. “What happens on Fridays?” asked Rab. “David Wotherspoon brings in cakes – his mum’s a brilliant baker.” “Fantastic,” said Rab, partial to empire biscuits himself. “And on the odd occasions she isn’t able to deliver, one of the young lads is volunteered to go down to the Greggs in Tranent, so Fridays are always cake days.”
I know what you’re thinking: Fridays are cake days and on Saturdays Hibs play like fondant fancies or somesuch thinly-coated and gloopily-filled equivalent. Well, they didn’t, not back then. But I admit that during the first lousy performance following the revelation we were shouting: “Lay off the bloody cream buns!”
You don’t mind hearing about players’ indulgences when your team is doing well; you accept they’re part of “bonding”. But, at the merest sign of trouble, you want the spoiled brats’ privileges removed.
I have no idea whether the cake run survived even Hughes’ (brief) second season, never mind the arrival of Calderwood, but the training centre is still there.
So, am I suggesting it be torn down as punishment for vanilla slice football? Well, not quite, although I do remember asking Calderwood if he thought nice surroundings made players too comfortable. Half-jokingly, I suggested that getting down to proper work on Saturdays when it’s raining and the crowd are grumpy might have become too much of a culture-shock. Quarter-jokingly, I suggested the installation of a coal chute (this after Calderwood told me how part of his duties as a young player at Mansfield Town involved lugging sacks of the black stuff to the top of the main stand). The manager laughed at this but said, no, the complex was a good thing. He couldn’t sort out Hibs, though.
I’m sure the centre is a great thing and I love visiting and getting lost among the team photos and action shots from bygone eras.
One thing, though: Tony Mowbray’s fine side used to have to pile into a minibus for bibs-and-cones training on school pitches. Actually, another thing: Eddie Turnbull’s great side was sometimes chased by a parkie.
These are things the current lot, who work out their moves on true surfaces although it’s difficult to tell come matchdays, would do well to remember.