Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hibs: A sorry saga

Little by little, inch by inch, Hibs are moving towards SPL safety.

Three points salvaged from a poor performance in Inverness were followed by a single point in an encouraging display against Motherwell on Sunday.

These are not earth shattering displays. But they are enough to edge further from a poor Dunfermline side who have not yet enjoyed the bounce they might have expected when unveiling Jim Jefferies as a managerial Red Adair.

A seven point advantage with 15 points to play for doesn't represent safety for Hibs. But it's going to take something special to condemn them to the First Division.

So it should be an optimistic sunshine that settles on Leith in the run up to Saturday's Scottish Cup semi final against Aberdeen on Saturday.

Is it?

I'm not so sure.

While tickets for that Hampden clash have been described as steady, cup fever has yet to grip the club.

An attendance for the Motherwell game of just over 7000 points to a supporter base that is being reduced to a rump.

The deadline for season ticket renewals has been extended. The official reason for this, to compensate for the increased demand on the clubs resources caused by the sale of semi-final tickets, should be treated with care.

Such is the concern within the club at falling attendances and poor sales that chairman Rod Petrie was forced into a public statement last week.

For those of us who watch events at Easter Road with an interest bordering on obsession any breaking of Petrie's silence is a major event.

This is a man who seems to think of himself as the mute force of good sense and benevolence at Hibs, the moustachioed Buddha of Albion Road.

So a Petrie statement is unusual. A Petrie apology is even rarer. But here it was:

"We made mistakes - I made mistakes. I am sorry. We have paid for these mistakes. That was then, this is 2012."

He went on to praise manager Pat Fenlon - "a tough competitor and a winner" - and quote statistics to illustrate the team's progress since Fenlon took over from Colin Calderwood. He even name checked the previous manager when acknowledging the decline in attendances.

The problem for Petrie and the Hibs board is that we've heard all this before.

In July of 2011 the chairman was making a stout defence of Calderwood, backing that up with illustrative statistics and pinning the blame on John Hughes.

For all the solace he takes in silence, Rod Petrie is running the risk of becoming the SPL chairman who cried wolf.

And that is leading to a deficit of trust.

The fans would react to a more successful team. But they don't trust the current board to furnish that ambition. That makes season ticket sales a hard sell.

It's an even harder sell if you present frozen ticket prices as some sort of victory for people power. It's not if people already think those prices are too steep.

It's doubly hard if you slip through an announcement that interest will now be charged on your "pay monthly" season ticket deal.

And it's even harder if you start selling season tickets when there remains a chance you'll be playing lower division football for the season in question.

These were a series of marketing decision that fuelled the idea that the Hibs board either have no cognisance of the feelings of fans or no regard for those feelings.

When a board appears to be navigating blindly through modern football there is very little chance of them being able to rely on the blind faith of supporters.

The bloody-minded player's coup that Petrie allowed to triumph over John Collins, the unsatisfactory reign of Mixu Paatelainen, the gradual descent of Hughes' stewardship into verbose madness, the mistake of first appointing Calderwood and then standing by him during a summer of rumour and indecisiveness.

Rod Petrie and his incoming chief executive Scott Lindsay have been around for these misjudgements, unsteady hands on the tiller during ever stormier weather.

The result is the current league plight. And a fans that have gone through rage and settled on detached apathy.

Apathy should be the thing that a football club fears the most.

"Please play your part and do whatever you can to help Pat and to support your team.

"By working together we can bring success to the Club. We are Hibernian!"

That was Rod Petrie's closing plea to supporters last week.

I agree with him. I'd love fans to renew season tickets, to see them queue round the block for semi final tickets, to throng the turnstiles for the league challenges ahead.

But I won't blame for them not doing that. Money's tight, people aren't daft. There are only so many times you'll let the club you love smack you in the face before deciding the pain and the hassle are not worth it.

And it's Rod Petrie and his board, the directors he has hand picked, who are largely to blame for that.

It will take more than statements, retrospective apologies and selective statistics to right those wrongs.

So this is a big week for Hibs. A strong performance against Aberdeen, the promise of a Scottish Cup final to come. These are things for fans to get enthused about.

An emphatic run in the bottom six of the league would also help, a run to quell those rebellious Fifers and give a hint of the sort of team Fenlon hopes to mould over the summer.

That would help confirm the view that buying a season ticket won't be an expensive form of masochism next season.

I hope the players and Fenlon can pull it off. And I hope the fans respond if they do.

Still though I can't shift the conclusion that it's the board not the fans or the manager who should be contributing more to the well-being of the club.

The days, weeks and months ahead might represent a defining moment for Hibs.

It's time for Rod Petrie to realise that actions speak louder than words.

> Cup or survival?

That question's been asked a lot of late among Hibs fans. Petrie's statement spoke of the fans helping the team achieve both. Ian Murray is quoted as saying the "romantic" notion for fans and players would be a cup triumph over SPL survival?

I don't remember Hibs winning the Scottish Cup. I do remember the anguish of relegation.

So depressing would the act of relegation be that I don't see how Hibs could win the cup after being dumped into the First Division.

It's survival and the chance of a cup win or nothing for me.

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