Aidan Smith: John Hughes for manager of the year

JOHN Hughes may wince at this but I want to tell you about my first encounter with the manager of Scottish Cup finalists Inverness Caley Thistle.

All smiles from Inverness CT manager John Hughes after their Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Celtic. Picture: SNS Group
All smiles from Inverness CT manager John Hughes after their Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Celtic. Picture: SNS Group

It was during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe when David Baddiel, to publicise his stand-up show, invited himself to training at Hibernian. Yogi was captain and – the Fantasy Football League presenter was crucially unaware of this bit – prankster-in-chief.

Baddiel joined in the five-a-sides but every so often the ball would be battered at him. At first we thought this was bad luck, but then it became obvious that Hughes was choreographing the punishment, and we got a picture of what school might have been like for the weedy, speccy comedian – that is, if he had grown up in Yogi’s working-class Leith.

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Baddiel must have been relieved when the session ended and he could squeeze into the team line-up for the photographs. But, crouched in the front row, he was suddenly drenched from above. Chic Charnley had just emptied a water bottle on his head, although he did not know this, and, when he turned round and looked up, Hughes was waving at him with what in Leith they call “yer tadger”.

All smiles from Inverness CT manager John Hughes after their Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Celtic. Picture: SNS Group

Oh how we laughed. Yogi’s timing in this stunt had been spot-on, as good as a comic’s. And on Sunday at Hampden his timing was pretty much perfect, too. Before the semi-final we reckoned there were two contests to be decided. Inverness won the match and by dint of that, Yogi and not Ronny Deila should now be anointed manager of the year.

With all respect to Robbie Neilson, it’s in the division his Hearts have been battling to rejoin where the award should be judged this time. Deila has enjoyed a good debut year at Celtic but Hughes – also in his first full season – has had a more impressive one.

How do we judge Deila? When he was appointed last summer, a joke email immediately did the rounds: “Congratulations on your treble.” In a Rangers-less world, the three domestic trophies were all expected, even for a coach we had never heard of. But the campaign didn’t start well.

Europe was a big disappointment and there were stories about the players baulking at the Norwegian’s training methods. Few were thinking he would last the season and it seemed that only the press corps would be sad about that. Whether things got lost in translation or Ronny was emboldened by the Scandi-domination of the cultural world, he certainly made for great copy.

But, after the worst of the winter, he started to be viewed in a different light. The Celtic faithful took to his three-punch celebration of a win. They liked his signings of Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong. Stefan Johansen was confirmed as a class act. Leigh Griffiths suddenly started banging in the goals, having signed up to the manager’s lifestyle charter later than the others. Rangers were overcome en route to the first part of the treble, the League Cup. Aberdeen were thumped in the showdown for the second part, and the title is almost in the bag. Two punches connected, one more was required on Sunday. But Inverness deserved their success. Although Celtic were denied the chance to go two up by the officials’ bungle, they fell out of the game after that. It is possible for teams hit by a red card to not look like they have lost a player, but Deila could not contrive this. Some thought, too, that he sacrificed the wrong man in the speedster James Forrest.

Thus the focus shifted to Yogi and his achievements this season, getting Inverness to the brink of European qualification through the Premiership and now the club’s first-ever Scottish Cup final. Caley Thistle enjoyed the good fortune that all teams need in knockout, not least against one of the Old Firm, but they played the better football. Celtic didn’t really match their inventiveness. The courage to receive the ball in tight areas and pass it using daring angles was almost Barca-esque. Fittingly, their best tika-Tulloch moment won them the game.

Yogi is often viewed as a big loveable lump. Next to Deila’s science and sophistication he can seem even more of one, but then you could say that about Scottish football as a whole. The thing is, though, a lot of the sophistication is down to the foreign accent, and Hughes obviously speaks broad Leith. Maybe Yogi would be unlikely to talk about his “philosophy”, a word that in any case is bandied about too often for its own good. But Hughes’ team were the smarter on Sunday, and that wasn’t the first time they had asked questions of Celtic this season.

It is an insult, indeed, to suggest that because of Yogi’s demeanour he is not a thinker about the game, or that Inverness are still agricultural. The ball spends far less time in the clean, fresh Highland air than it did under Terry Butcher. Caley Thistle are a cracking team. Hughes and his staff have worked wonders on a budget which is a fraction of what Celtic spend on their academy. Grumpily, Yogi has claimed that Inverness have flown under the radar this season, not getting the credit they have deserved. But now the praise for ICT is fulsome. They will be favourites on 30 May, a new pressure for the manager of the season. But John Hughes will not want to piddle it all away.

Another chapter in tale of woe but it’s time to turn the page

Oh flairful, favela-inspiring Hibernian. You taught Brazil how to play and you’ve consistently been responsible for great advances in the game, such as the first electronic scoreboard… is there no end to your ingenuity? Or, no beginning to your winning of the Scottish Cup? Saturday’s defeat by Falkirk was viewed by some as a new take on an old, old tale. After previous dates with destiny at Hampden when Hibs simply didn’t turn up, this was them playing all the football, dominating the match, carving out the best chances, hitting post and bar, being unlucky – and still contriving to lose.

I’m not sure I agree with those who were almost raving about the performance. Scott Allan rose to the occasion and the fans will be fretting over how long he is willing to stay, but others were overawed, which made them timid. The supporters, though, must keep the faith. I liked the words of Falkirk’s Tom Taiwo who urged them not to be too hard on the players, saying they’d be “heartbroken” too. Taiwo was at Hibs under Pat Fenlon, who became paranoid about the world laughing at the club’s ongoing cup misfortune (to which that manager contributed, toxically). Despite everything – relegation and this latest defeat – this is a better time to be a Hibby.