Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Malaise on Leith

New ways to suffer derby defeats: traversing the elongated series of roadworks that make up the road from Edinburgh to Stratford-upon-Avon relying on Twitter, text and Roddy Forsyth's sporadic updates among the cricket, Formula One and English football chat on Five Live.

The end result is pretty much the same though.

The Hibs fans arrive for the game in good heart and full of enthusiasm for what lies ahead (even if the deeper "meaning" of Sunday's game had a slightly engineered feel to it.)

The Hibs players arrive looking like perfect strangers and not the sort of strangers minded to take up arms and form a temporary band of brothers.

Do Hearts wish they could play Hibs every week? Bloody right. One third of their league wins, a sixth of their league points and a seventh of their league goals have come against Hibs.

It's possible to enjoy a decent season while being hapless in derbies. The loss of what every commentator is contracted to call "local bragging rights" niggles but the team's form elsewhere compensates.

Unfortunately Hibs have mainly been hapless against Hearts and hapless against everyone else.

And with a derby defeat comes despondency. A despondency that means glancing at the league table suddenly brings thoughts of Hibs having a horrendous run in the bottom six, a disastrous experience in the play offs and then, just like that, playing Championship football next season.

It all seemed so unlikely.

As December slipped into January, Hibs held their nerve to beat Hearts at Easter Road. That was a third straight win and the penultimate game in a sequence of nine matches that saw Hibs lose only to Celtic. So springy was the Terry Butcher bounce that even Lewis Stevenson scored a goal.

And then things started to go wrong. Defeats to Aberdeen, St Mirren, Celtic and Raith Rovers ended the feelgood factor - with the loss of 11 goals.

A home win against Ross County and a point at Kilmarnock promised to stop the rot but seven games have since slipped by without a win.

Dundee United, Motherwell and Partick Thistle have each scored three goals against a pallid Hibs defence. St Johnstone and Hearts have managed two each. In seven games Hibs have scored just five goals while conceding 14. Only Inverness failed to breach the defence in a 0-0 draw.

It's wretched. Butcher has cajoled, cuddled, berated, bemoaned. Whatever worked when he first arrived has stopped working. Now he looks and sounds like a man who can't believe any club would embark on a league campaign with this group of players. And who can't quite believe it's his job to now see them through to the end of the season.

Seven games without a win. And six games left of the Premiership season.

Hibs have still to play Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Ross County, Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hearts.

They lost their most recent games against Aberdeen, Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hearts, drew with Kilmarnock and beat only Ross County.

These are not heartening statistics.

What has perhaps been missed in the gnashing of teeth since the derby is that Hibs are six points clear of St Mirren in eleventh place and have a superior goal difference compared to the rest of the bottom six.

Current form might make them the worst of the worst but points on the board - always the best place for points to be - make them, for now, the best of the worst.

Given that the other five teams have to take points off each other it's likely that Hibs won't need to add massively to their current points total to stay up.

I'm normally optimistic only when gauging how much alcohol I can consume without risking a hangover but I'm actually still sort of, kinda, a little bit confident that Hibs will avoid the play off.

But it's become far too close for comfort.

Not for the first time, of course. This is a fourth straight season in the bottom six.

Two seasons ago - when Pat Fenlon replaced Colin Calderwood at much the same stage of the year that Butcher replaced Fenlon this season - it took until the penultimate game to guarantee safety.

(For what it's worth I calculate that Butcher has taken six more points from his first 19 league games than Fenlon managed. But that might be a case of two bald men wrestling over a comb. Neither record would concern a Manager of the Year jury.)

The most pressing thing for everyone at Hibs to focus on is getting the points (three or four might be enough) to avoid the play off.

Then they have to analyse what on earth is happening at Easter Road.

This is a club that should be able to compete financially, a club with a much vaunted infrastructure and a crowd that averages higher than most even in the bad times.

What leaves a club like that with such a propensity towards weakness in games that really matter for the fans?

What leaves a club like that with Alan Maybury, signed as emergency cover, as the only natural full back in the senior squad?

What leaves a club like that with a number of apparently impressive individual players who consistently look less than the sum of their parts?

What leaves a club like that with a signing policy so addled that two of your summer recruits are ditched in January?

What leaves a club like that in the bottom six four years running while at the same time losing two cup finals with an aggregate loss of eight goals, running up a record European defeat and losing to, among others, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South?

John Hughes, Colin Calderwood, Pat Fenlon and now Terry Butcher have been blamed.

Players - and recruitment has been plentiful but underwhelming, so many have come and gone that there are names I can barely remember - have been blamed.

But the pattern repeats itself and repeats itself.

I hope Terry Butcher has the ability and drive to find answers to these questions.

I fear, however, that he'll be powerless to change the one constant in all of this.

If anyone ever asks you to give a lecture on the dangers of staying in a position too long just stick the last four league tables and a picture of Rod Petrie on the screen. Job done.

We're told that everything Petrie has done, from the fantastic training centre to the new East Stand to the cost cutting and the managerial madness, has been for the good of Hibs.

If his shareholding and relationship with Sir Tom Farmer mean he can't or won't walk away he at least needs to relinquish as much control as possible.

Appoint a chief executive who can sell the club to potential players, who will take the odd three figure risk on a player's salary and who will rebuild the relationship with fans who are reaching breaking point.

These chief executives exist. Some of them might even be working in Scottish football right now. They'd love the opportunity that Rod Petrie is currently failing to make the most of.

Nobody would argue the case for financial mismanagement.

But what if prudence mixed with bad decision making means another flirtation with relegation?

What if prudence mixed with bad decision making means failing to find the right managers and having to constantly overhaul the playing squad?

What if prudence mixed with bad decision making means plummeting season ticket sales?

What if prudence mixed with bad decision making means your club is one that agents tell their players is best avoided?

Does your prudent decision maker not then become guilty of financial mismanagement himself?

And if your greatest asset becomes the liability that's harming your club isn't it time to move on?

I only hope that Rod Petrie can make that decision this summer with Hibs preparing for another season of Premiership football.

Because forget the talk of an exciting Championship next season - I don't fancy it at all. And I'd fancy it even less with Rod Petrie's influence remaining as powerful at Easter Road.

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