Friday, November 25, 2011

Hibs: When Irish eyes are smiling?

Hibs welcome Pat Fenlon as their new manager.

His task, which he's chosen to accept, involves performing miracles with a squad of Highland dancers.

He's the fifth non-Scottish manager of Hibs.

Following in the footsteps of Mixu Paatelainen, Tony Mowbray and Franck Sauzee.

And Dan McMichael.

If the imports of more recent vintage enjoyed mixed success, McMichael - like Fenlon an Irishman - might offer more welcome precedents.

Longevity. Commitment. Passion. And winning the Scottish Cup.

McMichael was born in Dublin and arrived in Edinburgh via Coatbridge. His affinity with Hibs would not have been unusual in those days, as late as the early 1900s Hibs retained the support of swathes of the west coast Irish community who hadn't yet been persuaded to take Celtic to their hearts.

But McMichael's enthusiasm seems to have been particularly strong and he was involved in the resurrection of the club in the early 1890s.

His footballing pedigree is unknown - he apparently won some fame as a sprinter in his younger days and was a referee - but his passion for Hibs saw him become secretary-manager of the club in the early 1900s.

That role seems to have meant doing a bit of everything.

If Hibs wanted to sign international goalkeeper Harry Rennie from Hearts in controversial circumstance, McMichael was the man.

If you wanted to buy your season ticket, it was McMichael you saw.

And, with the assistance of a trainer, he had responsibility for the team.

A responsibility he carried out with aplomb.

It was McMichael who emerged from Haymarket station - amid scenes that Edinburgh football had apparently never seen before - with the Scottish Cup after the 1902 final victory over Celtic.

He became something of a celebrity after the cup win - it has, after all, proved a hard trick to repeat - and one English journalist was amazed to be pointed in the direction of the chap painting the stand when he asked where he might find the famous Mr McMichael.

He seems to have appreciated the finer things in football: when Ibrox was reopened after the 1902 disaster it was McMichael's Hibs that Rangers invited to contest the first game, the occasion calling for the presence of "the most attractive team in Scotland."

The season after that now fabled cup success, Hibs won the league. McMichael the man had become McMichael the legend.

After their re-emergence in the 1890s Hibs had been forced to twice win the Second Division before being allowed entry to the top flight. Within a decade they had won the cup and the league championship.

McMichael had coaxed the club back to prominence.

At this stage in the club's history playing affairs were run by committee but it seems clear that McMichael fulfilled the role that we would now associate with the manager.

After the league triumph he returned to a more administrative role with Phil Kelso taking over as manager. The new man lasted just a season before heading south to Arsenal.

If that caused Hibs pain at the time - Kelso's record was far from being overwhelmingly successful - it set the stage for another McMichael claim to fame.

In 1904 he became the first - and so far only - man to manage Hibs for a second time. (I'm choosing to ignore Tommy Craig's double stint as caretaker manager.)

He lasted 15 years in the job the second time around. That's the longest stint of any Hibs manager.

The second McMichael era couldn't match the success of the first but as the club went through its periodic crises of confidence, cash and sundry other problems he managed to hold things together.

He steered the club through tragedy as well. Defender James Main died, as far as I am aware the only such incident in the history of the club, as a result of an injury he picked up in a game against Partick Thistle on Christmas Day in 1909.

Amazingly, certainly to modern sensibilities, McMichael gathered the team together and managed to fulfil the New Year fixture against Hearts just days later and again for a game against Morton on the day of the funeral.

It was McMichael's presence and little else that carried Hibs through the First World War when perilous finances once again threatened the existence of the club he had passionately championed in the 1890s.

Sadly he wasn't to live to see the results of his efforts. In 1919 he died of complications arising chronic bronchitis and related to the Spanish 'flu pandemic that claimed, at the lower end of the estimates, three percent of the world's population.

He was buried in the cemetery behind Easter Road, perhaps forever watching over the club that he devoted his life to.

Dan McMichael: Scottish Cup winner, league winner. One of the group of men who resurrected Hibs. And the man who kept that dream alive across a most difficult decade.

He did all this, perhaps in contrast to some of the fans of the day, while "never known to have spoken harshly or ungenerously to a living soul."

Makes Pat Fenlon's job look quite easy by comparison.

Alan Lugton, The Making of Hibernian: The Brave Years, 1893-1914

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