Sunday, January 09, 2011

Hibs v Ayr United: A Season In 90 Minutes

When Ayr United took to the field dressed in black on Saturday, pessimistic Hibs fans might have felt that here was the Grim Reaper ready to finish off what was left of their miserable season.

Certainly Hibs started the game at a funereal pace that never threatened to enliven the 5000 or so home fans who had turned out.

Given their dismal league form a cup game against lower league opposition might have been expected to release the Hibs players from their day to day worries. Yet confidence seems in such short supply at Easter Road these days that the players appear almost paralysed by fear.

Even when they enjoyed stretches of possession there seemed little intent in their attacks, every pass a trial with little willingness to move off the ball. These are the basics that, when they appear beyond the majority of your players, hint at more testing times to come.

It would be churlish to focus only on Hibs failings. Ayr came with a game plan that they executed well and offered more of a sustained threat in a game starved of chances.

Andy Rodgers might still be asking himself how Mark Brown kept out his chance in the dying minutes of the match, a late effort that suggested manager Brian Reid could have asked his player to show more ambition as the clock ticked down.

Certainly a replay at Somerset Park was the least the visitors deserved. It will be another night of trepidation for Hibs.

The newspapers have suggested that there was a cacophony of boos at the final whistle. In truth Easter Road wasn’t busy enough on Saturday to produce a cacophony of anything.

The new East Stand, a monument to Hibs’ financial acumen and off the field success, served only to accentuate the wide open spaces. The fans had voted with their feet. Hardly surprising. The trick Rod Petrie has pulled off is to build a grand opera house and then book Des O’Connor for the opening season.

With modern football littered with financial suicides at great clubs it seems strange to castigate Hibs for an austere approach that has delivered a completed stadium and a training ground without racking up huge debts. But Rod Petrie remains chairman of a football club and for some time now he has lost sight of the balance between running a property company and a football side capable of performing at the highest level.

And that means the board’s nightmare scenario is moving ever closer. The empty stands on Saturday are part one of that story. The very real threat of relegation is the worrying outcome of part two.

Not that the directors can shoulder all the blame. Colin Calderwood inherited a mess from John Hughes. He deserves time to sort that mess out. But he has not shown himself as the sort of manager who can come in and make a sudden impact at a club.

Often these “quick fix” managers burn out and it is debatable whether that is the kind of man Hibs either wanted or needed. But if Calderwood is plotting long term success he needs to articulate that plan to the fans. At the moment they see a manager who has changed little and is unable to even decide on his best starting 11 or his preferred formation.

A signing or two in the January window might offer some idea of his intent, as would the quick introduction of some of the younger players brought back from loan deals. If he feels that any of the 15 first squad players reaching the end of their contract are no longer committed to the club then he needs to either ship them out now or drop them for the rest of the season. Hibs are too far in the mire for passengers.

And the players themselves? There were few success stories on Saturday. Paul Hanlon continues to show promise and will be a key player between now and the end of the season. David Wotherspoon showed enough when he came on to suggest that dropping him to the bench was a bad decision. It’s a sign of the rancour around the club that Wotherspoon’s demotion immediately sparked unconfirmed rumours of a bust up between player and manager.

In truth though Hibs have too many players playing badly at the moment. Even basic communication seems beyond them. Danny Galbraith, given a rare start, spent too much of the first half standing in acres of space with his arms aloft. He must know that Hibs have few players capable of the kind of Hollywood pass he was demanding. When he began to link up with his full back and fight to get himself involved in the second half he looked more threatening. It’s simple stuff but too many of this Hibs squad have either forgotten the simple things or are taking too long to learn them.

Derek Riordan, captain in the second half when Ian Murray was substituted, offered his normal frustrating performance. He missed the sort of chance he would often score in the first half, played a pass to Zemmama in the second that showed what he’s capbable of, diverted a possibly goal bound Liam Miller shot onto the bar and then got hurt contorting himself to hit a shot that at least two players behind him were better placed to convert.

For me his most telling contribution came when he tried to beat Ayr defender Martyn Campbell. Faced with Campbell’s superior physical presence Riordan simply gave up the fight. He could argue that there was no way he could have won the ball.

Yet Colin Calderwood might feel that the sort of player prepared to fight for lost causes is exactly what he needs right now. It might not be universally popular with the fans but that brief snapshot perhaps explains Calderwood’s reticence at opening contract talks with his most naturally gifted player.

Liam Miller has become something of a target for the discontented masses of late, the strong rumours of a freedom of contract switch to Tynecastle hardly helping his cause. But for a player who has proved he has both the vision and ability to play a telling pass to so often look up and seen no movement ahead of him must be a dispiriting experience. Miller is often accused of hiding. Perhaps that’s true. But only a fool would believe he’s the only one in a green shirt guilty of that at the moment.

Elsewhere players like Francis Dickoh, Steven Thicot and Jonathon Grounds never really convince. In truth they are probably squad players who, thanks to the mismanagement of Hibs’ transfer policy, are being asked to build the nucleus of a team.

The result of all this was seen on a Saturday. Colin Calderwood statuesque on the touchline, the players switching between honest but futile endeavour and schoolboy errors. All against the splendid backdrop of the three quarters empty stadium 'what Rod built'.

2011 might be a long year in Leith.

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