Aidan Smith: Are Hibs fans precious? Oh probably

The substitution of Scott Allan was booed by Hibs fans.  Photograph: Alan Harvey/SNS
The substitution of Scott Allan was booed by Hibs fans. Photograph: Alan Harvey/SNS
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It’s only words, the Bee Gees sang, and words are all I have. The ditty was a hit in 1968 when talk wasn’t so cheap, there was still something called the dignity of print, and football fans didn’t stay up until 3am in their underpants hammering away on social media with orange fingers, 
a consequence of consuming too many jumbo bags of cheesy snacks, just like that slob Al McWhiggin in Toy Story 2.

Now, though, words ping and zing and zap and whap. The game is over-scrutinised, over-analysed and overwhelmed until eventually there’s overkill. In Scotland, the number of newspaper pages devoted to football has shot up, while in the photos accompanying the reports there are often rows of empty seats. No matter, we’re addicted to the chatter. We love hearing what managers and players have to say about this and that, win and loss, the dusting-yourself-down and the picking-yourself-up. The rattle and hum is constant and then every so often a statement will be issued and it will be like the proverbial penny banger has gone off in an old metal dustbin.

Ollie McBurnie and Paul Heckingbottom must feel like that right now. They must be waiting for the second verse of that paean from the noted philosophers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb – “This world has lost its glory, let’s start a brand new story” – so they can sing it in unison in the hope we might better understand the words they were trying to get across.

Let’s deal with McBurnie first.Obviously there was no statement as such, simply a brief exchange between two guys in a Sheffield United corridor, captured by club TV cameras. The Scotland striker and John Fleck appeared to be discussing national call-ups with McBurnie seeming to be less than enthusiastic about them. Fellow Scot Fleck is supposed to have asked McBurnie: “Are you going away?” The latter apparently responded: “I hope not.” The noises-off ended with an unequivocal “It’s shite” and although it wasn’t clear the phrase was uttered by McBurnie, the footage was sufficient, according to one tabloid, to “send the Tartan Army into meltdown”.

McBurnie is probably going to have to explain himself, say words about words. Put the conversation into context and, we would assume, add some truth. No, he wasn’t saying that Scotland trips were purgatory. Yes, he loves playing for his country. (And, yes, he hopes to score a goal in a dark blue jersey really soon.) Alternatively, he might think: what a load of codswallop.

Footballers have always said one thing for public consumption and sometimes quite another thing talking to the rest of the guys in a banterish and entirely off-the-record way. Come on, everyone who claims to have been outraged here: imagine if a clip was found of a player weeping uncontrollably in a world where club football rules as he struggled to articulate his deep love for turning out for Scotland at Sky TV’s convenience at a half-full Hampden in a group-of-death, the punters grumpy in the rain as the team faced up to yet another must-win game under yet another new coach – would that not stun you more?

Representing your country used to be the greatest honour. Now, all over the world, this has had to be downgraded. In Scotland we’ve forgotten how to qualify for anything. In Scotland we can be lugubrious. In Scotland, even concerning things we care about, it’s not inconceivable that, after a forensic assessment of all the available evidence, theconclusion might be: “It’s shite.” So, McBurnie stands accused of being Caledonia-reticent, but I’m not so sure. He also stands accused of being a bit overawed by international football, a raw ragamuffin, which is an image enhanced by the wild hair and the droopy socks, but hardly contracted by his general play and lack of goals.

Now for Heckingbottom and his words, which haven’t been lost in translation. He definitely did say that against St Johnstone last weekend the crowd’s anxiety as Hibernian attempted to hold on to the narrowest of leads filtered on to the pitch where the team eventually succumbed to a 94th-minute equaliser. And he definitely did say, when asked what he thought about the booing which greeted a change of personnel on the hour mark, that he didn’t know it was against the law to substitute Scott Allan.

Sarcasm? The lowest form of wit, my dear old mum used to say. The great Brian Clough could have got away with a line like that, but it’s harder to pull off when Allan has been by far the best of your summer signings and you didn’t actually make that one, whereas of the ones you did make, the striker who cost money seems as barn-door-shunning as McBurnie; the central defender, the last time your correspondent saw him, could barely keep the ball in play; the guy on the left wing has since disappeared down a hole; and the full-back was being troubled by St Mirren’s just-arrived winger before he got injured.

Did Heckingbottom regret his words? Jackie McNamara, Hibs legend, was summoned from his retirement-home sunbed in Spain to say that he should have done, and should apologise to the fans for incriminating them in that late collapse. But Heckingbottom went on to stress that no one was inviolable, not even a fans’ favourite, not even a bonnie butterfly like Allan, fashioning dreamy through-balls which sometimes no one can read.

He’s right to some extent, but he would have been greatly aided if the substitution had made that game safe and his purchases had made scintillating starts to life in Leith. Now he’s probably going to have to wait to hear the “Hecky’s at the wheel” song again.

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Heckingbottom would be well advised not to attempt that. Are Hibs fans precious? Oh probably, but just as McBurnie needs a goal, Heckingbottom requires a trip back to Hampden in the Betfred Cup or victory in the first Edinburgh derby of the season – and maybe both these things.

Less talk and more action, then, and neither of them want to contemplate the B-side of that old Bee Gees single. It was called Sinking Ships.