The tale of two seasons of slow decay, from the promise of European football, through the resignation of Alex Miller, to the torrid drama of the relegation play-off against Airdrie.
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Or ‘Cromb ushers in old age’ as the headline might have read. Forty year-old Ray Wilkins signed on initially for four games, in the aftermath of a 5-0 drubbing for Hibs at Celtic, as Alex Miller attempted to shore up the deficiencies in his squad and strengthen his own embattled position.
‘Alex Miller will be at Easter Road longer than I will,’ predicted Dougie Cromb. He was wrong, and even Wilkins outlasted his manager in the end.
The arrival of Thorsten Schmugge was also announced. Schmugge played once and then departed, reputedly because he missed his pet dog back in Germany. Whether Juha ‘The Grim’ Riippa was the other ‘high calibre’ foreigner referred to in the article I don’t know. Riippa, for what it’s worth, was another one game wonder, vanishing back to Finland after participating in a goalless draw at Tynecastle in November, during the janitorial tenure of Jocky Scott.
As for Wilkins, he eventually appeared 17 times for Hibs, finally departing after the game against Rangers at Easter Road on 4 January 1997.
The fans might have had more lasting respect for Alex Miller if he had said he was going for their sake, so drastically unattractive had the football become in his last days. Miller, however, laid some of the blame for that on the fans, saying the atmosphere at Easter Road was affecting the players.
That would be nothing new where Hibs are concerned, but Miller’s departure was greeted with universal rejoicing, a reaction which was understandable, but paid little credit to his achievements over ten years at the club. Hibs were a team going down the plughole when he arrived in November 1986 and he turned that round. He held the team together through the crisis of 1990 and produced the club’s first trophy since 1972 little over a year later. He rebuilt the team and took it to another League Cup final in 1993 and back into Europe.
The signings of players such as Keith Wright, Kevin McAllister, Michael O’Neill and Darren Jackson belied Miller’s reputation as a dour pragmatist, but it has to be said that the pragmatic always outweighed the pretty in his teams. The stereotype of Miller’s Hibs grinding out mind-numbing defensive draws was formed not only in the seasons when we struggled against relegation, but also infuriatingly in the midst of otherwise adventurous winning runs.
It is for that, rather than his association with Rangers (though the two are related in the minds of some Hibs fans), that Miller will never be fondly remembered as the man who led Hibs from the brink of extinction to League Cup glory in 1991. Turnbull’s Tornadoes won it in 1972 and the victory of 2007 will be credited to John Collins (or even Tony Mowbray), but for Hibs fans it seems that the 1991 trophy was won by the players alone. That is a grossly unfair judgement on Alex Miller.
Dougie Cromb shed tears when Miller resigned, and said that he would go on ‘to higher and better things.’ It didn’t seem that way when Aberdeen turned to him a year later to try and revive their flagging fortunes, dispensing with him after a further 12 unspectacular months. But in May 2005, as he leapt from the Liverpool bench to celebrate their sensational Champions League victory as 1st team coach and an integral part of Rafa Benitez’s backroom staff, the jibes of Hibs fans could scarcely be further from his mind, and Dougie Cromb could feel vindicated.
Memory fails me when it comes to the details of this game. This is probably because it took place on the same day that the Grand National was postponed due to an IRA bomb scare at Aintree. I had to queue up for an age at a bookie’s on Easter Road to get my stake back, since I was returning to Cambridge the next day. If I’d let the bet ride for when the race was finally run on the Monday I would have had about £50 to collect on my next trip north. Story of my life.
Anyway, history records that Hibs won this match 2-0 thanks to a Chic Charnley penalty after 73 minutes, the concession of which also led to Steven Pressley being ordered off. Pat McGinlay secured the points five minutes later. With Motherwell only drawing at Pittodrie Hibs were five points clear of the dreaded play-off spot. Unfortunately the results were reversed the following weekend and when Motherwell won improbably at Ibrox on the second last day of the season while Hibs went down to Celtic the teams were tied on points with Motherwell crucially ahead on goal difference. A nervous final Saturday lay in store.
London Hibbies might like to scrutinise the photo below and see if they can name the three members to Phil Larner’s right, snapped while celebrating Phil’s 50th birthday (and a 2-1 Hibs win at Aberdeen) in the Forthview restaurant at Easter Road. Leave a comment if you recognise anyone.
Jim Duffy had finally been appointed as Hibs manager in December 1996, but his arrival – and the signings of such luminous talents as Jamie McQuilken, Paul Tosh, David Elliot and Lee Power – failed to arrest the slide down the table.
Victory in this game, except by a barrel-load, would not have guaranteed Hibs’ survival, but with Motherwell only managing a draw with Dunfermline a simple win against already-relegated Raith would have kept Hibs out of the play-off with Airdrie.
I’m not sure whether it is sad or pleasing to relate that the last thing Gordon Hunter kicked in a Hibs shirt was not the ball but an Airdrie player. Either way, his sending-off brought an end to more than 10 years of honourable service at Easter Road. Still only 30, Hunter headed for Australia hereafter, before returning to see out his career in the lower leagues (bar 3 SPL games for Dundee) at Cowdenbeath, Hamilton and Stirling.
Hunter’s suspension for the second leg of this relegation/promotion decider, together with the slenderness of victory by an own goal, made it understandable that Jim Duffy should question the virtues of the play-off system. No doubt Alex MacDonald was more optimistic of Airdrie’s chances and satisfied with his side’s ability to niggle and rile their opponents.
Although this ended up being Hibs’ biggest win of a grim season they achieved it the hard way, going a goal down in the first minute and surviving a penalty miss by Airdrie later in the first half.
This was never going to be an uneventful match, and with a further three penalties awarded and Jimmy Sandison sent off for elbowing near the end it lived up to expectation. Darren Jackson scored two of the penalties for Hibs to secure the tie and Hibs survival in the Premier League.
It was the end of Jackson’s Hibs career, however, sold to Celtic for £1.25million in the summer. His return to Edinburgh two years later to play for Hearts completed his transformation from hero to villain. Keith Wright had also played his last game for Hibs at the age of 32, and Jim Leighton was lured back to Aberdeen by the offer of a player-coach role at his first club.
Perhaps they also saw the writing on the wall in this nerve-shredding brush with relegation.