Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Enemies reunited: Jim Jefferies returns

Hibs fans aren't supposed to like Jim Jefferies.

The walking personification of Hearts, he wasn't put on this earth for us to hold him dear.

And largely we don't like him.

But there's something about Jim.

Maybe it's because, in the constantly evolving modern game, the nostalgic sight of a Wallyford curmudgeon prowling SPL technical areas will likely become ever rarer.

Maybe it's simply that, like an ageing aunt you don't particularly care for, Jim is always there for the big moments.

The most famous result in Hibs history, that Tynecastle walloping that's echoed down the decades? There was Jim playing for Hearts.

When Hibs got relegated in 1998? There was JJ delivering a Scottish Cup to Tynecastle, adding the cyanide icing to that particularly bitter sponge.

When Alex McLeish and Franck Sauzee let Hibs fans dream again? There was Jim in the Hearts dugout, looking like a basset hound chewing a mosquito.

When Hibs ran rampant against Kilmarnock at Hampden? There was a miserable Jim providing inspiration for the massed choirs.

If nothing else Jim has been a totem, a rallying point for our ridicule and our wrath. And there's always a certain comfort in such constants.

The relationship might have changed of late. At half time during Sunday's derby, after the latest insipid display in Hibernian's comatose season, I was treated to some fine invective about the trick Hibs had missed in plumping for Pat Fenlon instead of Jefferies when Colin Calderwood took his leave.

That's very far from being a majority view. But a minority, in Sunday's case a vocal minority with a vocabulary that would make Dave Allen blush, saw him as the best man to do a short term job in another moment of Leith crisis.

Hibs chose a different path. Jumping from the SPL managerial carousel they opted for Fenlon and gave him the dual task of plotting a long term future for a club that's been rocked by a series of botched quick fixes while at the same time finding an immediate formula to keep Hibs in the SPL.

The latter job seemed tricky but also oddly simple. Turn a team without heart into a team that could fight for points. That was never going to be easy.

Create a team that, at a bare minimum, remained a touch better off than Dunfermline. Not so difficult.

Hibs have been poor this season. Very poor. But Dunfermline's weaknesses have saved Hibs from the relegation spot. Hibs own weaknesses have, in turn, ensured Dunfermline have not been cut adrift.

The story of the bottom six was set, a last waltz between Hibs and Dunfermline.

There was, I think, a satisfaction among some at Easter Road that the winter transfer window represented a job well done. A skin of the teeth job, maybe, but enough to outlast Dunfermline.

And then patient Dunfermline finally reached the end of the line with Jim McIntyre.

No time for a novice? Send for the time served gaffer.

Enter Jim Jefferies at East End Park.

If Fenlon's immediate remit has been to stay ahead of Dunfermline so Jefferies will have been given a clear instruction: reel Hibs in.

Both managers might eye St Mirren (without a win in 2012) or Inverness (six points from 21) and ponder the benefits of spreading the relegation load.

But for now it's boiled down to Hibs v Dunfermline. To, yet again, Hibs v Jim Jefferies.

The narrative has got more interesting: the back story stuffed with history, ancient and modern. Jefferies in a survival battle with Fenlon's assistant Billy Brown, for so long the Shirlie to his Pepsi.

Enough to cause a collective shudder in Leith, enough to set moustaches trembling in the Easter Road boardroom?

Probably.

Hearts fans have taken a glee that is quite unbecoming in pointing out to me that Hibs are now most certainly doomed.

Piffle. That might happen. But there are few guarantees.

Jefferies is far from universally lauded in Kilmarnock and, despite the surprise at his eventual dismissal, his record in his final few months at Hearts wasn't great.

He inherits a team that must be low on confidence, someone else's squad - a thin one at that - and players who haven't managed a home win this season.

Curing those ills won't be easy.

Can Jefferies do it?

Undoubtedly. He's a sound manager, knows what's needed in the SPL and he wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't think he could pull it off.

Maybe he'll be able to galvanise and cajole where McIntyre couldn't. A home game against St Mirren that looks winnable would give him the perfect start on Saturday.

Then he needs to negotiate Hearts and Dundee United before the league split. After that he'll relish the battle of the bottom six. And anything will be possible.

This is not mission impossible. The relegation battle wasn't over when Dunfermline elected to jettison McIntyre. The arrival of Jefferies will almost certainly ensure there are even more twists and turns ahead.

Two poor teams searching for enough inspiration to get them over the line.

Jim Jefferies and Hibs.

Hibs and Jim Jefferies.

It's game on yet again in this most enduring Scottish football duel.

> The Daily Mail reports this morning that Leigh Griffiths has left Hibs after sticking the heid on Pat Fenlon and punching Billy Brown. There, allegedly, is a twist and a turn right there. Surely not even Jim Jefferies is powerful enough to have that sort of influence. (Mail Online)

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