Aidan Smith: Ryan Porteous has to change because the laws of the game won't

Ryan Porteous loves a tackle but the last one at Ibrox he loved a little too much.Ryan Porteous loves a tackle but the last one at Ibrox he loved a little too much.
Ryan Porteous loves a tackle but the last one at Ibrox he loved a little too much.
Three and a half years ago at Ibrox, Ryan Porteous announced himself to Scottish football and, although we have a tendency to get carried away when a new prospect pokes cherubic features through the glaur, he really did look like a talent.

Last Sunday at the same venue, however, Porteous was no longer being called the future, rather he was the past. A defender who thinks it’s still 1973! Who’s under the assumption grainy old clips of psycho-tackling are YouTube tutorials! Whose specialist subject on Mastermind would be “Bruce Lee, his Kung Fu films and the bits where he gets his nunchucks out”!

This was the reaction, more or less, to Porteous’ lunge at Joe Aribo. His career, were it to stop right now, would have been bookended by two visits to Govan, one warmly received the other inciting the wrath of hell. And there are some who think it might as well stop, for he can’t possibly go on like this, can he? …

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Everyone’s a psychologist now, as well as everyone being a pundit. “The guy needs help.” I’ve read that a few times over the past week. And I suppose that by the sheer law of averages not all those prognoses will have been issued by punters typing in their pants at one o’clock in the morning.

So how has it come to this? If we go back to 3 February, 2018 in search of clues we’d find Neil Lennon in charge of Hibernian missing David Gray, Paul Hanlon, Darren McGregor and Steven Whittaker - an entire defence - and forced to hand a teenager his league debut in the most unforgiving of surroundings.

John McGinn scored a great goal, Scott Allan dazzled at the start of his second Hibee spell, but a stunning victory was built on the foundations of Porteous’ lusty tackling. He showed no fear and loved the physical, the bigger the reputation the better, with Alfredo Morelos discovering the young opponent had a bump for every one of his barges - a sign of things to come between these two. Just 18 he might have been back then but, confirmed Lennon, “he’s a man”.

Mature at talking, too, and the obvious choice for the post-match chat. I was covering the game for this paper and, sat in front of where Rangers subs warmed up during the second half, it was obvious Porteous was baiting Easter Road striker Jason Cummings, then an Ibrox loanee, so I asked him what he’d said. “I was telling Jase to hurry up and get on the park so I could kick him,” he replied with a beaming smile. “I was telling him how I was going to deal with him - force him onto his [weaker] right foot.”

What young debutant is confident enough to take time out from his hectic schedule to do this? To break off from the raging intensity of Ibrox to wind up an old pal? Ryan Porteous, that’s who. And, you might also ask: what young debutant is confident enough, instead of simply hoofing, to trap a high ball on the chest and attempt to dribble out of his box, only to lose possession and concede the free-kick which led to Rangers’ equaliser? The same Porto.

Because Hibs went on to win, his solitary mistake that day was glossed over. So all of Ryan Porteous was on display in 2018: the skill, the fearlessness, the - euphemism alert - fondness for a tackle. Also, though, there was the cockiness and the belief that, ball at his feet, he can be Beckenbauer. That profile is understandable at 18 and forgivable, but you’d have to say that at 22 not very much in Ryan’s world has changed.

He’s still tenacious as hell. He’s still able to strike a lovely crossfield pass. He’s still a menace in the opposition box. But he still has the ability to be a menace in his own box. Added to that, Scottish football knows his game now and which buttons to press. Strikers like St Johnstone’s Chris Kane can wind him up with a sly dunt and cause him to lose focus, as happened in last season’s Scottish Cup final. Last Sunday Morelos administered the sly dunt and we know what happened next.

At various points over the last three and a half years, Porteous was predicted to be involved in international breaks such as this one. At various points, too, he was the Hibs player, from a choice of three or four, who Rangers fans most wanted their club to buy. Not any more. Now they view him as public enemy No 1, a danger to life and limb, which is faintly ridiculous, not least because of the long tradition of hard men - and the odd runaway road compressor - who’ve tended to get their retaliation in first in the Ibrox rearguard.

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Porteous will serve his suspension and re-emerge in time for - you couldn’t make this up - Halloween. There will be another high-profile match, against Celtic. In the face of those who reckon he’s the bogeyman and who bring the weight of their analysis - nutter or ex-pro - to bear on him, I feel sorry for the lad. It’s all got a bit mad. Other talking points are available, you know. He was enjoying a fine season until this happened.

But it can’t be said the tackle was out of character. He’s a Hibs fan and likes to show his passion, but if he’s playing to the gallery that’s a fool’s game. There is no bigger nostalgist for football, 1973-style, than me - or admirer of Alex Edwards who was the most combustible Hibee of that bygone age - but Porteous has to change because the laws won’t change, and the club have to properly help him there. Let’s see the promise of that wonderful debut fulfilled.

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