I will go anywhere to avoid having to watch Chelsea nick another European trophy so that the non-playing John Terry can don full kit (plus shinpads!) for the celebrations. On Wednesday night Recreation Park was as good a place as any.
Trim ground, decent crowd, long shadows on a sunny evening, two Athletics, a classic old stager-young groover battle-of-wits on the touchline and no sign of any dreary end-of-season, after-you-Jimmy fade-out. Yes, I was enjoying the Alloa-Dunfermline game on BBC Alba right up until the moment I remembered it was a play-off.
I don’t do play-offs. Did ’em once, never again. 17 May 1997 – a match never to be forgotten but for all the wrong reasons, and I bet the rest of the 15,308 crowd at Easter Road that afternoon would agree. For sheer, unadulterated horror, it’s never been topped or indeed bottomed. And yet here we are, seriously considering play-offs again.
Of course they’ve been a feature of the lower divisions for a while but there was a period when the Premier was required to nominate some poor suckers for the diabolical deciders and 16 years ago that was Hibs. Play-offs happen all over the world and doubtless they are loved in many places. But, while England have successfully turned theirs into mini-cup competitions involving only promotion-chasers in fine form and finishing with a day out at Wembley, the Scottish version back then dragged chronic under-performers from the top flight into the contests – clubs who’d forgotten how to win, forgotten the game’s basics and were terrified of their own shadows.
Oh, and if you were really unlucky you got to play Airdrie, one of the most unsentimental teams in all football.
In 1997, that was Hibs’ fate. These were the Hibees of Keith Wright, the Skol Cup talisman, Darren Jackson and the returning Pat McGinley – but also of Jamie McQuilken and Lee Power. The Diamonds were like Hearts in disguise with Alex MacDonald as their manager. Being melodramatic types, football fans are prone to exaggerate the bad and I wondered if I’d been too hard on that match in the years since – wasn’t it even vaguely exciting?
I dug out some reports. The Scotsman had McGinley saying that for gut-churning tension, he’d never experienced anything like it, while Easter Road boss Jim Duffy immediately called for play-offs to be scrapped. They were simply too stressful for players to cope.
I could find no mention of the macabre moments when the ball was booted out of play under no pressure, when players booted each other because it was all they could do, although the six yellow cards and one red were recorded. Somehow, with the help of an own goal, Hibs contrived the narrowest of wins. The players didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or shoot themselves. Staggering out of the ground, the fans looked like they’d been trapped in a lift for an hour and half. And, five days later, everyone had to go through it all again.
This big jessie wimped out of the second leg, which produced even more desperate mayhem. Four penalties, eight further bookings and another sending off. Hibs won 4-2 and must have promised themselves – never again. True to their word, they didn’t get dragged into a play-off the following season, opting instead for straight relegation.
“Compelling theatre, but highly suspect as a form of entertainment,” was The Scotsman’s summing-up. Play-offs work for the teams narrowly missing out on automatic promotion, who would be confident of finding that little bit extra to take them though. But it’s a bit much to expect the second-worst club in the league to suddenly transform into winners, or even just be able to express themselves on the pitch, in ways other than constipation and paralysis.
“This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, this is genocide”, David Bowie once declared. What he was probably trying to say was: “Play-offs ain’t football, they’re sadism.”
That said, when I switched back to Alloa versus Dunfermline, the relegation-flirting team weren’t performing as if the pitch was concealing trapdoors or landmines, as Hibs did in ’97. Maybe the parlous Pars were just happy to still be around, after all that’s befallen them this season. Or maybe some clubs can handle play-offs and others can’t. So let’s see – Hibs are usless at play-offs and useless at winning the Scottish Cup?
Ah, but that’s a whole other column, coming next week...