Thursday, April 26, 2007

What now at Easter Road?

There appears to be something in the water in Edinburgh – and it's not coming from the burst sewage pipe at Seafield.

A season of smug satisfaction for Hibs fans looked like it might get even better. One cup was already locked in the trophy cabinet. Kevin Thomson was dumped and Scott Brown returned to equilibrium. European football – and a shot at the Scottish Cup – lay only 90 minutes away. And Hearts were still rudderless and uncertain.

Alas hubris is a terrible thing.

Since the euphoria of the Hampden victory that captured the CIS Cup Hibs have lost to Hearts, failed to score in three games against the bottom team in the SPL, seen European football disappear and experienced a player rebellion. And still the Scottish Cup hoodoo hangs over them.

The player rebellion apparently stemmed from John Collins management style. Too strict, too regimented. No consistency in team selection, no empathy with more experienced players.

Fans and the media gathered round Collins, and his assistant Tommy Craig, and berated the players for acting like spoilt children (fans and the media, of course, are major factors in creating an environment where players can act like spoilt children but that is another story) but, tellingly, there was no official statement of support from the aloof Chairman and Chief Executive Rod Petrie.

The lack of goals was blamed on the loss of the injured striker Chris Killen. The strict regime was a nod to Collins’ experience in France. The chopping and changing was Collins way of finding out which players he could trust.

The press were then treated to the bizarre sight of Collins – so often painted as a thoughtful, intelligent guy – being fed lines by Craig in a press conference. Something was amiss.

Eventually the players apologised – but they chose to do this after a miserable draw with Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup.

And that, essentially, is the crux of the matter. While a dream cup double and European football were a possibility the fans could hope and cracks could be papered over.

But on Tuesday night Hibs' world collapsed. The replay defeat to Dunfermline has left fans angry and bemused. Where, they ask, do Hibs go from here?

Thomson’s departure is almost certainly going to be followed by transfers for Scott Brown and Chris Killen. David Murphy and Steven Whittaker may also go. Thomas Sowunmi, a January signing, has failed to convince. Goalkeepers Zibi Malkowski and Simon Brown are on their way out. Guillame Beuzelin is struggling for form and Ivan Sproule is increasingly exposed as a speed merchant without a football brain. Michael Stewart is on his way, along with Stephen Glass, and Shelton Martis may also be packing his bags.

The sales of Thomson and Scott Brown alone should raise in the region of £6 million. Which is where the silent Mr Petrie reappears in our story.

Because John Collins will see very little of that money for players. In fact, he’ll not see a penny. No transfer fees, no increased wage structure.

Which means more youngsters and more untested free transfers. Almost certainly not the experienced campaigner that Collins could so desperately use on the pitch.

For Mr Petrie this means a balanced budget. For the fans it means a lack of ambition and mid table mediocrity. For Collins it means that a board that would not publicly support him against the players is unwilling to back him in the transfer market. It is a situation where almost everyone loses.

Fans are happy to be impressed by falling debt and new training centres. But only if it is matched on the park. If that doesn’t happen they vote with their feet. Mr Petrie will be the target of the fans ire. John Collins will almost certainly get caught in the crossfire.

Collins enamoured the whole of Leith when his side lifted the CIS Cup. It looks like being a shining moment in a brief and unhappy return to Easter Road.