With a smile and a joke, new Hibs boss Lee Johnson straps himself into the Pepsi Max of football management

Does size matter? I don’t know but Alex McLeish, Tony Mowbray and Alan Stubbs are all big guys, each standing over 6ft, and as managers they brought the good times to Hibernian.
Lee Johnson waves the scarf but there weren't too many ither first-day cliches when he took over at HibsLee Johnson waves the scarf but there weren't too many ither first-day cliches when he took over at Hibs
Lee Johnson waves the scarf but there weren't too many ither first-day cliches when he took over at Hibs

Then there’s Pat Fenlon, wee guy, who I’m afraid goes down in history for having presided over the club’s two biggest disasters. There’s Shaun Maloney who really wasn’t at Easter Road long enough to rack up any horror-shows but still wasn’t invited to stick around. (By the way, if you’re looking for an example of how – no pun intended – short-termism has become the culture in football, then consider how Fenlon was able to remain in post after losing the Scottish Cup final 5-1 to Hearts. That wouldn’t happen today. A manager wouldn’t then be allowed to take Hibs, pioneers of continental competition, into a home tie against Malmo where they would be hit for seven).

And now there’s Lee Johnson. As soon as the appointment was confirmed, some wag remarked on Twitter that at 1.68m according to Wikipedia – 5ft 5ins in old money – he was going to face as many challenges as Maloney in getting a ride on the Pepsi Max.

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Don’t be small, don’t be bald, don’t stand under an umbrella. Football pounces on perceived imperfections and gaffes. After Steve McClaren hoisting a brolly while managing England was ridiculed for being unmacho, every coach was required to ruin their expensive suits when it lashed down. Hair replacement technology has come to the aid of the heirs, not hairs, to Bobby Charlton and Ralph Coates. But if you’re short? Too bad. Nothing can be done. You’ll just have to endure gags about failing the minimum-height rule on a Blackpool thrill-ride (now known as simply the Big One, if you jokers are at all bothered about accuracy).

Or … you win a Big One. The league (beyond Hibs), a cup (hopefully not), a decisive victory over your city rivals. Maloney could not do this, beaten by Hearts on successive Saturdays and that was him gone. Jack Ross, by the way, proved he could win at Tynecastle but was later sacked. Paul Heckingbottom proved he could win at Tynecastle and ditto. But the revered Mowbray? Hearts banged four past his Hibees three times in one season yet he was never under threat.

What’s changed? How has football management become a job almost requiring kamikaze-pilot training? How has the Easter Road post become the Big One or the Big Bad One, a 200ft plunge, the dugout strapped to a rollercoaster?

Social media. I can’t help thinking that Hibs must be tuned into it with the dedication of WW2 code-crackers. The criticism of Ross on Twitter before he was emptied was ferocious – and then he was emptied. Same with Maloney.

A lot of the people behind the scenes at Easter Road are relatively new. Not their fault and not a criticism, but they’re not steeped in the story of the club or Scottish football, and even if they’ve been around for a bit, like owner Ron Gordon, they don’t actually live here. So without established networks in the Scottish game and Hibee culture, with Monday-Friday club activity no longer being anywhere near Leith, how do you take your soundings and find out what the fans are saying?

Sorry to say, but Twitter is not an Algonquin’s Round Table or a Bloomsbury Set of considered comment. It can sometimes be enlightening – and passionate and hilarious – but there are bampots out there. A lot of them. They love a pile-on, even without the bevvies. And they make fun of the 5ft 5ins men in the world.

All that said, I was thinking before Johnson took charge that if his employers were studying social media too intently, then it would have been a very good idea if the man hadn’t been reading it at all. Some fans were saying he had to be given a chance but many more were underwhelmed. He wasn’t sexy. Not like Jon Dahl Tomasson. Who was … foreign! That, you see, was enough on its own to get a section of the support excited and hang the fact he knew neither club or scene, although these had been prerequisites the week before.

But guess what happened when footage of Johnson’s unveiling rolled out? The dissenters were impressed – “I take it back … ” remarked more than one – and with good reason. He seemed genuinely chuffed to have the job, like he really will work his butt off to do well.

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He was laid-back. Even when Gordon beside him admitted recent fan reaction had unnerved, if not shell-shocked the hierarchy, Johnson kept smiling. He described Hibs as “iconic”, a word that’s a cliche when spouted by a Tory minister but not in football. He barely used any hackneyed managerspeak. He even cracked a few funnies, and having counted them in and counted them out at Easter Road over far too many years now, I can tell you that gags during these inaugurations are rare.

We shall see if he remains a chilled-out entertainer. The section of the West Stand nearest to where he’ll be is not short of constructive, and sometimes unconstructive, criticism, as Heckingbottom would testify (though as Hecky told me, he was damned if he was going to heed his barrackers, no matter if their advice had been sound).

Sacking two managers in four months is almost South American but at least no one’s pulling a pistol. Who would do this impossible job? Lee Johnson – short, fat, hairy legs or not – and good luck to him.



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