What a night at Easter Road on Friday. Historians, archivists and casual collectors of canny, quirky facts about Scottish football have already logged it as a moment that won’t be repeated. Never again, they claim, will the second tier feature a game with such a big crowd, such a rollicking atmosphere, such ribald verse.
This is dangerous talk. In football, you never know. Concerning Hibernian, you never know. They may not have another home match against their closest rivals so it’s not immediately obvious where a repeat of that 18,786 attendance would come from, but what if they were to fail to get up this season? After all, one of the raucous chants namechecks Dumbarton, albeit in a dismissive way, and with Hibs due there on Saturday that four-point lead could yet end up being smashed against the rock behind the Sons’ ground.
Ah, but would the faithful be willing to turn out in such numbers if their club had to scrap and scramble right the way through a fourth year in the Championship? A third is being tolerated because Hibs won the Scottish Cup. Some fans have yet to come down from their Hampden high but additional excursions to Ayr and Dumfries might sort that out. If we’re all agreed, then, Friday was special for Scotland’s forgotten division.
Forgotten by much of the meeja now Rangers have left it. No goals on Sportscene, no passing mentions during the show, not even the fun item at the end of a programme illustrating the nation’s propensity for daftness. The “And finally ... ” which everyone remembers is Nationwide’s skateboarding duck. The good and loyal folk of Easter Road, Tannadice, Cappielow and all the Championship airts must feel like shouting at the screen: “Go on, Jonathan Sutherland, pictured, flash up our league table for five seconds. We don’t mind being your skateboarding ducks.”
To be fair to Beeb Scotland, the radio boys have plunged right into the Championship’s affairs while the Premiership is on its winter hols. On Sportsound, in advance of full coverage from near-sold-out Leith, other second-level activity was heavily trailed, including commentary from yesterday’s Raith Rovers-Falkirk match, a feature on Andy McNeil’s dramatic flight from Morton to China and an interview with much-travelled John Rankin, now a Doonhamer. Heck, Sportsound even ventured an opinion or two on the conundrum: “What’s gone wrong at St Mirren?” This is a daunting area for non-specialists – specialists, too.
It’s a pity, given the big build-up, the thumping crowd, the presence of TV cameras, the mild winter evening and the lack of distraction from the top league for those prepared to ignore the hourly bulletins on the chances of Moussa Dembele remaining at Celtic, that only one team performed.Sunset Boulevard’s Gloria Swanson might well have had in mind this reduced-circumstances confrontation between two of Scotland’s notable clubs when she uttered the immortal words: “I’m ready for my close-up.” This was the Championship’s turn in the spotlight but the Arabs fluffed their lines.
Ray McKinnon is right to say that the race for automatic promotion has not yet been won by Hibs, but having landed this blow there will be much wailing and gnashing of falsers if the Hibees fail again.
The best since he took over, said Neil Lennon. The best since the cup triumph, in other words, and there were vivid echoes of the run to glory in Jason Cummings’ second goal, the defensive meanness of Paul Hanlon and Darren McGregor, Marvin Bartley’s thundering tackles and, in his late cameo, that barrelling run for the third goal by the baby-faced slugger, John McGinn.
For those who haven’t seen much of Hibs in their third Championship instalment, they haven’t always been this good. Sometimes, when the ball has gone high, missing out the midfield which in any case didn’t feature any of the quartet which finished the final, they were a tough watch.
But horses for courses. Lennon said right at the start that the team, in attempting to escape the division, had possibly played too much football.
The Raith manager, Gary Locke, has repeated the oft-heard call that the Premiership should be expanded because it can’t afford to be without the likes of Hibs and United. Maybe so but that’s no reason for us to make up the rules as we go along. Both clubs deserved to be relegated and are trying to come back stronger. Both deserve more coverage of their efforts than fans having to scour YouTube for footage redolent of the wonky, wooden-tripod era of dear old Arthur Montford.
McGinn’s career-best goal at Ayr was tragically missed by the cameras, though Raith TV might just be my favourite station after Movies for Men. Like Queen of the South, the Fife club are exceedingly generous with free highlights.
It’s staggering, given how many empty Premiership stands we see on Sportscene, that no bigger channel than BBC Alba covered Friday’s match. But if it had the crowd might have been cut.
In the sudden surge of interest in the Championship we might wonder if the ghosts of Alan Whicker and Fyfe Robertson, such keen observers of forgotten tribes, had inquired of fans on Friday: “Don’t you miss games at Motherwell, those trips to Rugby Park?” No offence, but the answer would probably be no. Supporters are simple beasts: they like seeing their teams win. One of these two will probably take the title. Come that day I dare Sportscene not to acknowledge the top skateboarding ducks.