Friday, May 25, 2012

Hibs: Starting over

This time last week Hibs were looking forward to a once in a lifetime Scottish Cup final.

Harold Wilson was a Huddersfield Town supporter so he probably knew that if a week is a long time in politics it can be an eternity in football.

A fairly miserable eternity at that.

The Hibs team that turned up at Hampden lacked belief and lacked desire. They were also hopeless.

A triple whammy to die of embarrassment for.

The mind plays tricks but in the back of my mind was the idea that at times Hibs managed to appear more overwhelmed in losing 5-1 to Hearts than Aberdeen did in losing 4-0 to Rangers in the 2000 cup final.

And Hibs didn't have the excuse of losing their only goalkeeper with 87 minutes remaining.

Another Scottish Cup slips by. 111 years now.

Against Hearts. In the first all Edinburgh Scottish Cup final for 116 years. After a performance that made mediocrity look an aspiration.

For a club that likes to stress the importance of supporters as part of the "family" Hibs certainly find ever more inventive ways of smacking their fans in the face.

The positive spin: Hibs escaped relegation and got to an unlikely cup final.

That's not too convincing. Waiting until the penultimate game to finally consign a poor Dunfermline side to the drop with only a second home win of the season.

Then losing your biggest ever game after a humiliatingly dominant display from your greatest rivals.

After finishing tenth the season before.

The negative reality is that mediocrity as aspiration was not a phenomenon unique to last Saturday.

Rather its a culture that seems to have infected the Hibs team - in all its many incarnations - for three years.

Why?

The appointment of Colin Calderwood was clearly a mistake, a mistake compounded by the decision to stand by him - vociferously support him - as he mulled over Steve McLaren's sweeties last summer.

Yet the available statistics still point to Hibs being above average payers.

Which means some of the ten teams that outperformed them in the league this season and the nine above them the season before are doing more with less.

That - combined with the sheer volume of players who come, go and do little memorable in between - points to a breakdown in recruitment and scouting.

Last spring Hibs changed their board structure. In the 12 months since Fife Hyland has proved himself a fairly ineffectual chief executive.

His counterpart in charge of football affairs, Scott Lindsay, hasn't even been that good.

As the board's main footballing power Lindsay has had as many managers as home league wins.

Yet with Hyland leaving Hibs - and a response to an email from a fan that I saw on Monday that fairly dripped with sarcasm points to a man delighted to be free - it is Lindsay that chairman Rod Petrie has appointed as chief executive.

That smacks of rewarding failure, of creating a culture of mediocrity from the top that has infected the whole club.

Last summer's blue riband signings were Ivan Sproule and Garry O'Connor.

That's indicative of a lack of originality. O'Connor's goals have been important but he's also been inconsistent and featured too often in the news pages. The harsh truth is that when other clubs are moving forward Hibs can't afford to be a philanthropic rehabilitation centre.

And Sproule was a nostalgia signing, a player who was always going to be limited when he lost the confidence to live on his pace alone.

Harsh, of course, to pick on just two players. Harsh but illustrative of a club that preaches progression in it's off field dealings but has recently just staggered from one ill conceived quick fix to another on the pitch.

Which brings us to the cobbled together starting eleven that broke every heart in the stadium except Hearts' last weekend.

Loan players, summer signings and youth graduates who have been allowed to drift for too long.

Is it any wonder that when asked to become legends they couldn't find it within themselves to discover any sort of spirit?

A team that didn't deserve a cup final playing for a club that recently hasn't deserved even such a distant promise of success.

What now?

A mass clearout has begun, one that goes further than just the disappearance of the far too large cast of loan players.

Such an overhaul is needed - there were five painful examples of why last weekend and there could have been more - but it has to be done with ambition, creativity and a sure hand.

Scrabbling around in the last days of the transfer window, signing players who played in a decent Hibs team six or seven years ago, players who the manager was impressed by four seasons ago, bolstering them with untried loan signings.

That's not going to work. Bitter experience points to that. Hibs have at least made the mistakes already. Now they need to learn from them.

A big job for Pat Fenlon.

Rebuild the squad, rebuild the spirit of the squad, rebuild the failing scouting department, make sure the youth squads are producing the kind of player that can once again enhance the first team.

Wipe away this culture of mediocrity, this dangerous complacency that lets people think they've got away with failure because Dunfermline's failure was worse.

He does that now against the ghastly backdrop of the final. The fans, although they'll never forget, need to forgive him and trust him.

Trust. He needs that from Rod Petrie and Scott Lindsay as well. When next season kicks off that duo will have been involved in this period of decline longer than anyone else.

They need to back their manager, interfere less and trust his judgement.

What if Fenlon gets it wrong or if he finds his ideas are stymied by a disapproving moustache and a boardroom henchman who think, against all the available evidence, they know better how to deliver footballing success?

Well, if that happens then the Scottish Cup semi-final win over Aberdeen could be the last moment of Hibernian cheer for quite some time.

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