Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hibs turn to Jelly(stone)

Hibs fans had grown somewhat numb to the utilitarian tactics of Mixu Paatelainen. So they were ready for the attacking game and footballing philosophy that John Hughes promised when he returned “home” to Easter Road.

There were some that pointed to his relative inexperience and Falkirk’s brush with relegation under his stewardship last season.

But on the whole those doubters were appeased by a couple of headline grabbing signings – many thought the days of Hibs attracting a Liam Miller or an Anthony Stokes were long gone – and a flying start to the season. Even into late December Hibs were being talked about as capable of mounting the challenge that would split the Old Firm.

So how has it come to this? On Sunday I couldn’t find one Hibs fan who fancied their chances of getting any points after the split, most of them glumly accepting that the season is now all but finished and just hoping that Hearts don’t inflict too big a humiliation when they meet at Easter Road in a couple of weeks.

Even if you’re no smarter than the average bear you can surmise that something has gone horribly wrong with Hughes’ Leith homecoming. The fans expected a Yogi revolution only to be delivered a Boo-Boo. (I could go further here and suggest that it was Ranger Smith who began the collapse when Hibs lost their early advantage to go down 4-1 to Rangers at Easter Road at Christmas. But I won’t.)

Inevitably there are calls for the manager’s head. Two wins in 13 games is hardly the form that delivers confidence to the terraces and calling for a sacking is the predictable response of the unhappy punter.

As a club Hibs pride themselves on their financial stability. In recent season they’ve failed to match that on the pitch. Since 2001 when Alex McLeish was in charge they’ve gone through 7 managers, with Hughes following the short lived reigns of Mixu and John Collins. Sometimes a club needs stability in the dugout.

So, at the very least, Hughes needs a bit more time.

Time to bring in the players (a defender or two, a more physical midfield presence) that he should really have been looking to attract last summer. Time also to work out any problems that might currently be simmering away in the dressing room.

Tittle-tattle and rumour is the chief export of Leith so I’ll not list all the gossip (and the stories I’ve heard are long, varied and would probably result in libel action). But the players apparently relaxed demeanour as they warmed down after last week’s Hamilton humbling suggests that not everyone feels the pain of defeat as keenly as the manager and fans. A big name or two being shipped out in the summer would not surprise me.

Hughes himself also needs to find a workable Plan B. His philosophy is admirable. But when it fails he seems to have no options besides a Tony Mowbray style huff and reverting to a long ball game that is completely at odds with the strengths of his players.

There should be more room for idealists in football. But every idealist needs a healthy dose of realpolitik to succeed.

Hughes himself should also tone down his personality a little. I don’t know how it works with the players. But the rambling press conferences and post match interviews focusing on positives that have eluded everyone else are not endearing him to the fans. It’s almost as if he is constantly trying to prove that Hughes the manager has more depth than Hughes the player. The fans aren’t going to show patience with a man using press conferences as a form of therapy.

Gloom is obscuring the sunshine in Leith right now. But Hibs still sit fourth, on more points than they amassed last year. The current pessimism is made worse by the recent optimism. But earlier in the season the press, the fans and even the players and managers got caught up in an impossible dream. Hibs were set targets that they weren't good enough to meet. That's not the end of the world as long as they make more improvements next season.

It’s not yet time to cut Hughes loose. But he’s going to need to prove that he’s learned from this season’s mistakes.

Results That Killed A Season
Hamilton 4-1 Hibs (10th April)
Hibs 2-4 Dundee United (31st March)
Ross County 2-1 Hibs (23rd March)
Hearts 2-1 Hibs (20th March)
St Johnstone 5-1 Hibs (17th February)
Hibs 1-4 Rangers (27th December)