Friday, July 08, 2011

Hibs: Summer's Gloom

The commentators have fixed the month for me, they have chosen the date and the day. But I advise them: "Don't count your chickens before they are hatched."

Remember what happened to Marie Lloyd. She fixed the day and the date, and she told us what happened. As far as I remember it went like this: 'There was I, waiting at the church.'

Perhaps you recall how it went on. 'All at once he sent me round a note. Here's the very note.

This is what he wrote: "Can't get away to marry you today, my wife won't let me."'

Now let me just make clear that I have promised nobody that I shall be at the altar in October? Nobody at all.


So said Jim Callaghan at the TUC conference in 1978.

It became a defining moment of his premiership, confirmed him as the ditherer's ditherer and resulted in the electoral backlash that was the 1979 general election.

Given the farce Colin Calderwood has allowed himself to become involved in it wouldn't suprise me if he quotes Sunny Jim verbatim when he talks to the press after Hibs play East Fife this weekend.

Hibs are enduring a summer of discontent.

It's worth remembering the health Hibs were in as the summer dawned. They'd endured a miserable season in the SPL, first under the scattergun management of self confessed "fitba' man" John Hughes and then when Calderwood arrived to steady the ship.

After a poor start - it was a cup exit to Ayr United rather than a miraculous 3-0 win at Ibrox that would define his early months - Captain Calderwood did manage to bring a lilting, leaking vessel under control.

He used the January transfer window to bring in six players, carried out radical surgery on his starting eleven and ended February as manager of the month. He also put paid to any lingering - and at one stage very real - threat of relegation.

But the season didn't so much fizzle out as drop down dead of heart failure. It wouldn't be quite right to say Hibs made an almighty mess of the last weeks of the campaign. To make a mess you need to be active, here appeared to be a squad of passive wage cheats happy to let disaster wash over them.

Calderwood needed time, and I was happy to argue that at the time. He'd inherited a weak squad that was low on confidence and that featured a number of players who were coming to the end of their time at the club.

Rumours persisted that he wasn't happy in Leith - I wrote in a review of the season that this had much to do with his rather unanimated personality coming under the scrutiny of amatuer body language experts - but he spoke of his commitment, his desire to continue reshaping the squad and of a work in progress.

And then something changed. Suddenly a picture surfaced that appeared to show Calderwood meeting with new Nottingham Forest manager Steve McClaren.

It seemed McClaren wanted Calderwood back at the City Ground as his number two. Then another twist. Chris Hughton, Calderwood's boss at Newcastle, landed the Birmingham City job. And he wanted Calderwood to join him.

Never has a season of such mediocre achievement resulted in such attention.

As football fans we are used to people lying to us, telling us what we want to hear to make their own life easier in the short term even as they are plotting departures.

It points either to an admirable commitment to honesty or a symbol of just how completely not arsed he is about Hibs that Calderwood chose not to issue denials.

Rather he spoke of how much he missed his family and how he wouldn't rule out a move back down south as an assistant. Not so much fanning the flames as pouring petrol on them.

He has stated his commitment to the job in hand but the fans would surely be forgiven for feeling that is now no more than a hollow insurance.

For their part Hibs have dug their heels in. Rod Petrie, Scottish football's most taciturn 'tache, was moved to release a strongly worded statement - so strongly worded that some of it has now been redacted - that was either a decisive "hands-off" warning or a "you better have a bigger bag of swag if you're coming back" instruction.

But the impression still remains that Forest will up their offer, Petrie will bank the cash and Calderwood will be away. Hibs will have a matter of weeks to find a new manager and for that manager to get to know his squad and prepare for the season ahead.

Arriving late in the transfer window the new man - I presume it will be a man - will be working with an inherited squad. It will be yet another season of "transition" for a club that currently seem to be almost permanently suspended in transition.

The glib reaction is "well, Calderwood's crap so Hibs will be better off."

It's not a reaction I accept. What the club needs is stability - not the much vaunted financial stability - but the sort of stability that allows a manager to build a team, develop youngsters and have a real impact.

Hibs haven't had that for years. They are on their eighth manager since 2001. This is a club that has regressed since John Collins won the League Cup in 2007. Calderwood deserved time to at least prove that he'd buck that trend.

And now it seems that he doesn't want it.

If he goes then it is Calderwood who will be painted as the villain. But what it is about this club - with first class facilities - that makes it so difficult to manage in the long term?

What is it about this club that leads those in the media I speak to - all of them dealing with football clubs every day and not all of them unsympathetic to Hibs cause - to describe Easter Road as "shambolic" or an "absolute nightmare?"

What in this board's record suggests that in Rod Petrie and his henchman we have a group of men qualified to find the right man for the job? Their last four appointments have hardly been rip roaring successes.

Calderwood's departure wouldn't be an isolated one off, it's not simply a tale of a man taking on a job that was too big for him, it's part of an extended pattern of a club that has achieved much off the pitch but that fails time and time again to get it right on the pitch.

A training ground and a completed stadium are fantastic things and they are things at which Petrie has excelled. But he's now failing the club on the football side.

Even if Calderwood does stay I see nothing but problems ahead. Supporters who have had there patience sorely tried, who have never been convinced by the manager and who object to his apparent lack of commitment won't take long to turn on him.

I hear dismal stories regarding season ticket sales, I frequently encounter fans who have had an anger bypass and now function on apathy alone. That's a big, big problem for a board that has been built in Rod Petrie's image, a board that worships sound financial management before footballing success.

(Success is relative. Sometimes it feels you can't mention "Hibs board" and "lack of ambition" in the same sentence without being shouted down for your dangerous talk of a kamikaze financial policy. But what is the point in all this financial success if the club isn't willing to compete with other clubs aiming for the top half of the table? And how much more difficult does it become to sustain financial success when the product on the pitch is consistently poor?)

On the back of that abject season Hibs needed this summer to be an inspirational one. It hasn't been.

Alongside the Calderwood saga there's been a training round bust up that ended with a young player in hospital. For a club that's struggled of late to shrug off tales of indiscipline that's unfortunate.

I've heard tales of new strips being sent out without the socks due to a manufacturing problem. One story, possibly apocryphal, had tickets going on sale without the club having the paper to print them.

Small things perhaps. But part of a bigger picture, contributing to the idea of a club that is at odds with itself. A failure to reverse that impression will begin to seriously harm the club's accounts.

And a wantaway manager does nothing to help.

The club will point to the signings of Garry O'Connor and Ivan Sproule as being a statement of intent. But they've not had the galvanising affect on the fans that might have been hoped. The fans know what they once were, they need convinced that they can still provide the answers Hibs need.

And, in their own way, the signings have been destructive. If certain rumours - strong but unsubstantiated - are to be believed then Calderwood himself did not sanction these two nostalgia signings. If there is truth in that - neither player fits the profile of other Calderwood signings - then we might see that a homesick manager has been driven to despair by interference from above.

Even if those rumours are untrue, the number of people prepared to believe them illustrates the huge disconnect that currently plagues the "Hibernian family."

Most fans would also concede that those two signings plus Sean O'Hanlon represent the bare minimum of what needed to be done in this transfer window. The current lack of activity - perhaps related to the Calderwood question - is not setting minds at ease.

A depressing summer? For sure. A squad that doesn't yet feel fit for purpose - horror stories reached me from Livingston in midweek - is about to face a new SPL season with either a manager who doesn't want to be there or a manager who is as yet completely unknown.

That is a not a pre-season to get excited about. It's an absolute disaster.

Colin Calderwood has played his part in all this. But as the days between us and the new season disappear Hibs are still looking odds on to be searching out yet another new manager. Their third in less than twelve months, their ninth in a decade.

If anyone in a position of influence at Easter Road think that is a sound, sensible or successful record for a football club then it's not just Colin Calderwood who should be considering his position.