Book Review – How’s Your Touch? Not too bad actually…

Far from the Armageddon predicted by the man responsible for marketing our game, Scottish club football has had a good few years, and feels like it is getting some of its vibrancy back; the introduction of the pyramid has injected some badly needed dynamism into the lower end of the Scottish league and the semi-professional regional leagues beneath; the league playoffs have created genuine spectacle and excitement; the continued success of Aberdeen and Kilmarnock in challenging the return of the old duopoly at the top. Dare we say, even the Scottish national team has a coach that creates some optimism. It is this sense of renaissance that is captured in How’s Your Touch, a reboot of the traditional football album that seems in-keeping with the mini-revival of Scottish football.

Gone are the staged squad photos, and the 1980s feel of those beloved old albums, and in their place is a stylish and creative work, with a look that is contemporary and slick without feeling artificial or staged. This is a Scottish football album for digital generation.

It has avoided the pitfall of the reboot however, and it has not lost that essence of a good album. It lovingly recaps the season in all leagues, charting the rises and falls of teams and players. Its 7 of the week feature giving kudos in equal measure to top league stars, such as when Uche Ikpeazu was helping Hearts barge their way to the top of the league, to lower league stars such as Rory McAllister who, thanks to week 2 of the season’s moment of the week, I now know scored his 100th SPFL goal in a 4-0 win over Albion Rovers.

The ever-growing women’s game is also included, with coverage of the main tournaments, again tapping into a sense or momentum that is gathering behind it.

This book captures so much of what is good about Scottish football, particularly the passion. It is written with genuine enthusiasm for its subject, be that Dunfermline Athletic or Motherwell, and it is the kind of book that one can easily see becoming an annual must have for fans the length and breadth of Scotland, regardless of club. This is one truly for the fan of Scottish football, from Dingwall to Dumfries, Methil to Dumbarton.

How’s Your Touch currently has a crowdfunder campaign running, which is open until June 30th – if you want to support this book’s publication, you can do so here, or follow the progress on Twitter @HYTAnnual

Lennon’s legacy at Hibernian

Happier times for all concerned

The inevitable, if yet unconfirmed, departure of Neil Lennon from his job as manager of Hibernian marks the final act in what has been a glorious and historic period in the history of the club.

It’s ironic that Hibs’ longest run out of the top flight following a relegation would usher in such an important era, but it did, and both Stubbs and Lennon played huge parts.

While Stubbs was the man that built the team that Hibs fans identified with like no other since the Mowbray years, Lennon’s contribution was arguably just as important for capitalising on that most improbable of successes in May 2016.

In the emotion of the bizarre and unedifying ending of Lennon’s reign, it is easy to get caught up; either to gild the lily and make it out that Lennon worked some kind of miracles with Hibs. Or else to revise his time in charge as one long period of rancour and disharmony, and Lennon as some wild man beyond reason or control. Neither would be correct.

What Lennon did do was take over at a difficult time, the club and the support still wallowing in the warm summer afterglow of ending the Scottish cup curse, giving little thought to the business of promotion; arguably a more important, if less glamorous challenge than winning a cup, even that cup.

Lennon brought that focus, and built upon the significant legacy of Stubbs. Promotion was won in a more or less perfunctory manner. This was no glorious march to promotion, sweeping away all comers in a hail of flicks, tricks and goals. It was functional, practical and it did exactly what it needed to do, with the bonus of a Scottish cup run that saw Hearts, doing well in the league above, hammered 3-1 in another replay at Easter Road.

All of this was against a backdrop of big crowds and a feel-good factor unknown at Hibs for years, as the fans responded to both Stubbs’ triumph. That Lennon was able to build on, and add to it is to his enormous credit.

Upon promotion, Hibs had a solid if slightly inconsistent start to the season, as Lennon slowly built the team. 

Perhaps mirroring his own emotional character, in the January of Hibs first season back up, his team exploded into a riot of goals and brilliant, cavalier attacking play. Hearts and Celtic were both defeated at Easter Road, Rangers again were beaten at Ibrox and Hibs were up challenging for 2nd place. They would ultimately finish 4th, a very respectable outcome to the first season back.

The 5-3 win over Kilmarnock and the 5-5 draw at home to Rangers at the end of that season were perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Lennon as Hibs manager; roller coaster matches that couldn’t help but provoke a sense of joyousness in the wonderful spectacle that football can be.

Off the park, and more importantly, Lennon took the baton that Stubbs passed him and he ran with it, allowing Hibs to build upon the success of 2016, to elongate that feel-good factor. And that is why Lennon’s reign must go together with Stubbs’; they were two halves of the same match.

With Lennon’s departure, and regardless of how it has happened, that period is finished. The feelgood factor is gone, and Dempster and whoever replaces Lennon will have to build a new era, and write their own history.

I wrote at the start of January that this transfer window would mark the toughest part of Dempster’s job as chief executive so far. I had no idea just how correct that prediction would turn out to be.

As for Lennon? The emotion and bitterness of his departure will fade quickly, and his legacy will be fondly remembered as a Hibernian manager with whom the good times far outnumbered the bad, and who kept the good times rolling for two and a half years.

Should Hibs sack Neil Lennon?

For us to know if sacking the manager is the right answer, perhaps we need to take a closer look at what is the question?

Why is a squad of good players performing so badly, over such a long period of time?

Lennon could of course point to the fact that the team needed such major surgery last summer, summer that was only partially completed at best. This is absolutely a fair point, losing such a brilliant midfield unit in one go was always likely to leave a gaping hole.

Lennon could also justifiably point to the injury record this season, which again is a fair point – it has been as bad as I can remember it being, and with a mixture of short term and long-term injuries affecting every area of the pitch, it is not a straight forward problem to overcome.

But there is a rule in problem solving called Occam’s Razor which says that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest solution is most likely to be the correct one.

Given that the bad form and bad feeling around the team can be traced back exactly to the game at Tynecastle; given that since then, Lennon has at various times stopped doing media work; and given that he has been almost constantly and quite publicly slagging-off the players (individually and collectively), the simplest answer is that he has lost command of the players.

This obvious bad spirit, alongside his complete inability to pick a consistent team, and inability to have them well set-up and well drilled defensively where everyone knows what their job is (and does it), it increasingly looks like he is the main problem.

Lennon made a big play when he arrived of making Hibs tougher, getting a winning mentality and not accepting poor standards.

Well applying those principles to the current team, the bottom-six is completely unacceptable, as is the run we are on, as is how disorganised we look. We look a poorly coached side at the moment, and we look poorly motivated.

I’m not going to say he should be sacked, because I am not privy to what is actually going on within the squad and club. But Leeann Dempster and George Craig should be.

What I will say is that I just don’t believe that Livingston, Kilmarnock, Hearts, St Johnstone or Aberdeen have considerably, if at all, better squads than Hibs do.

So, the question is, what are those teams’ managers doing that Lennon is failing to do, and is he capable of fixing it?

Farewell Efe – you’ve proved everybody wrong

What a signing he turned out to be. An emergency loan while languishing in the lower leagues for the third season, he came in with a reputation as an accident-waiting-to-happen in defence.

Yet Efe Ambrose turned out to be a brilliant player. And while he did make the odd mistake (what player doesn’t?) they were far fewer than the opposition fans would like to believe, and highlighted far more; mud sticks in Scottish football, even when the mud is not justified.

His style could be compared to former players Sol Bamba and Franck Sauzee.

While he was definitely not as raw as Bamba when he arrived, he came with a similar reputation for costly errors that proved to be greatly exaggerated. Bamba, like Efe, had a brilliant mix of composure, physicality and genuine ability on the ball. A combination that will suit Efe well if he moves to England, as it is currently suiting Bamba in his career.

And while obviously not anywhere near the same level as the great Sauzee, he had a similar elegance when bringing the ball out from the back, as well as that unerring ability to play football when all around (including fans) were starting to panic.

All the best Efe, it’s been great.

Over to you, Leeann

For the first time since taking over from Rod Petrie in the summer of 2014, Leeann Dempster has the pressure on her.

Yes, she had to take over a club that had just been relegated into the most difficult second tier in Scottish football history, and yes, she had to deal with Butcher. But it is often easy to make your mark on a job when it is a shambles in the first place. Even small and straight forward decisions can have a big impact and show the new boss in a positive light. Much more difficult is to maintain high-standards, and that is the challenge that she now has.

None of this is to say that Leeann Dempster has done a bad job, or has had it easy; quite the opposite in fact. But her success thus far creates the difficulties that she now faces; how to replace top players? How to sustain the ‘feel-good’ factor of the last few years? How to deal with a Manager whose volatility is becoming more of a problem and is impacting performances? None of these are easy problems to solve.

However, it is perfectly clear that something needs to change; a bottom-six finish would not be acceptable from this season, and if that was to happen (by no means certain, of course) then either the manager is culpable for not getting enough out of this team, the recruitment team is culpable for identifying poor players, or the board is culpable for not providing the necessary backing.

Hibernian supporters have backed the club in enormous numbers, and the virtuous circle of continuous improvement on the pitch being matched by continuous growth off the pitch has to be maintained. That either means having a manager who can consistently get his team to perform to a level greater than the sum of its parts (debatably any of Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Livingston, St Johnstone, or even Hearts), or it means signing the players required to take Hibs back up to that level; and if that means spending money, then that is what has to happen.

Hibs fans have put up with a lot in the last few years, when prioritising infrastructure over the team was the club’s strategy which led to steady decline followed by a sudden collapse. A bottom-six finish is not a disaster of Butcher proportions, but it is a notable decline in on-field standards that will almost certainly be reflected in off-field support. And it is Leeann Dempster’s job to stop it from happening.

Lifting Hibs off their knees was the easy part; keeping the club standing tall could well be tougher.

Why another book about that day in May?

The tempting answer is, who could ever tire of watching or reading about it?

The real answer is that I felt that the real beauty of the cup win was just its sheer unlikeliness. In all of those 114 years, there could have been few eras less likely to produce the cruse-shattering run. Don’t get me wrong, if Fenlon’s team had done it, they would have been up there (or down there?) as mong the least likely teams to achieve what the Famous Five, Turnbull’s Tornadoes or the Celebrated Team of the 20s couldn’t.

But as I point out in the book, it is all too easy now to forget just what a basket case of a club we were. Seemingly terminal decline, endless transition, lurching from ignominy to ignominy, having no sense of purpose or direction except to exist.

And I felt that neither Aidan Smith’s or Ted Brack’s books really looked at the whole story. That is not meant as a criticism, they were obviously trying to get their books out quickly and tell that immediate story. And adding in all that context and history wasn’t easy, hence why my book has been published more than two years later.

But rather than be in competition with the books mentioned above, I hope that mind complements them, by adding a degree of history, and also context on what the cup win meant for Hibs, and how it helped to catapult the club back to a more fitting position in Scottish football, than the depths to which it had sunk in 2014/15.

I hope that What Kept You Hibs? can add to the overall story by looking at how Hibs found themselves so low, the aftermath and catalysing effect of May 2016.