Tension takes its toll in Easter Road play-off

PAT McGinlay described it as the most tension-filled day he had known as a professional and Hibs’ midfield player could readily be called case hardened and someone not given to hyperbole.

Hibs striker Darren Jackson and Airdries John Davies square up during the match. Picture: Tina Norris

Hibernian 1, Airdrie 0 The Scotsman, 19 May 1997

He has lived through the time when the size of the Premier Division was altered to keep the Easter Road club within its membership.

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McGinlay was also at Celtic during that chaotic time in the club’s affairs when the boardroom was under attack and his wife, Margaret, handed out paint to protesters who wanted to erect a banner calling for the directors’ removal.

It took the first leg of the play-off against Airdrie, however, to convince him that you learn something new every day. “The atmosphere in the dressing-room beforehand was unlike anything I have ever experienced,” he said afterwards.

“Some of the things that went on out on the pitch during the game were unhealthy as well.”

It was, in summary, an occasion which seriously questioned the frequently heard observation that it is only a game. The build-up of tension was not confined to the day when two sets of players went to battle, at times literally, for the right to play in the major league.

“The demands of the occasion affected the players’ families and the strain was with us everywhere we went,” McGinlay said. “There were even people shouting at us in the street and saying that Hibs would go down because Hibs were not a good enough team.”

It should then, in retrospect, hardly be surprising that the game on Saturday was compelling theatre, but highly suspect as a form of entertainment.

One can only imagine what the second leg, to be played at Broadwood on Thursday night, will be like since that occasion ultimately holds the destiny of both clubs in its hands.

McGinlay is firmly of the opinion that Hibs, having an aggregate lead, will survive with their league status intact.

The depth of his conviction has been strengthened, paradoxically, by the ordering-off of Gordon Hunter, which deprives Hibs of their longest-serving player for the second leg.

“When Gordon went off and Airdrie came at us, I thought we then became more threatening in front of goal,” he said, while reasoning that Hibs’ opponents are now obliged to go after the two goals they need to secure promotion.

Hunter’s dismissal, for two separate offences, was the result of rash conduct which afflicts players placed under intolerable pressure. It was aggravated behaviour of the sort which prompted Jim Duffy, the Hibs manager, to suggest that the Scottish League might consider the idea of making the play-offs a 90-minute spectacle played on a neutral ground.

McGinlay introduced the only detectable note of levity to be found anywhere inside Easter Road when he remarked that he would rather lighten the load still further by having only one team automatically promoted and relegated.

Since neither course of action is likely to be adopted in the foreseeable future, the players, management and officials of both clubs will need to put up with more verbal abuse and mental anguish over the days ahead and hope that they are not subjected to more of the same next season.

There was a suspicion that McGinlay, and some others, had gone to extremes simply to play in the match that would help determine their livelihood in the immediate future. He had done no training last week, but denied having taken a pain-killing injection to get him through the afternoon.

John Hughes had, because of injury, not played a first-team match during the five months Duffy had been in charge of the side, but suddenly materialised when push had come to shove.

The pain barrier will have to be gone through again and the outcome of Thursday’s game will therefore be about qualities other than the capabilities of the players involved.

Hughes, for example, had entered the pitch with a smile on his face and left with the sunnier side of his disposition noticeably unaffected by what had taken place in between.

The defender is from Leith and appreciative of the need not to allow the club who represent that area of Edinburgh to suffer any loss of self-esteem.

Easter Road was packed almost to capacity with those of like mind. The crowd was Hibs’ second biggest home gate of the season. An attendance which had been bettered only by a visit from Rangers was mainly due to the size of the home support and not from the benefits of playing against an Old Firm team.

It is now a question of attitude. Hibs are going into a one-off match against a team from a lower division having been given one goal of a start.

They must now accept responsibility for what happens next.

Hibernian: Leighton; Renwick, McQuilken, Hunter, Hughes, Welsh, Tosh (Lavety 74mins), Dow, Wright (Power 74), Jackson, McGinlay. Subs not used: Grant. Goal: Cooper (og 13)

Airdrie: Rhodes; Stewart, Jack (Smith 77), Sandison, Sweeney, Black, Johnston, MacKay, Cooper, Davies, Connelly. Subs not used: Subs not used: Wilson, Lawrence.

Referee: J McCluskey. Attendance: 15,308