OH, FOR the balmy, carefree days of last October if you’re a Hibernian fan. The club were comfortably fifth. Not world-beaters but not total mince either – remember those successive Scottish Cup finals? Okay, remembering the first of them had been seriously cautioned against by all of Leith’s psychoanalysts and in the second the team had played only marginally less like wimps. But top six looked eminently achievable and, once the new players had properly settled in, so did a challenge for Europe.
In a bid to make Hibbies feel even better about themselves – and about a season which seemed set to feature the bonus of relegation for Hearts at its end – Rod Petrie told the club’s annual general meeting that their true position was second. How so? Was he turning the league on its side, multiplying by three, dividing by two and adding the number he first thought of? More a case of there being statistics, damned statistics – and the chairman’s way of looking at things.
Petrie was talking about clubs living within their means. Based on such criteria over the history of the SPL, now the Premiership, both Hearts and Rangers would be plunged below Hibs. The Easter Road faithful tried to sound pleased. They weren’t sure that “second-best at paying our bills” could be fitted onto a banner, far less into a song, but fair enough, let’s see how everything pans out.
Well, Hearts will indeed play second-tier football next season but Hibs on current form will be joining them. They are the poorest-performing side of the relegation scrappers over the last half-dozen games. Draw up a table from the start of 2014 and even allowing for Hibs’ New Year victory over Hearts, they would be marooned at the bottom, five points adrift. For the consolation prize of local bragging rights, they have been well and truly marooned – the score is Hearts 4, Hibs 1. Almost seven months to the day since Petrie did those sums, the club embark on a week of three games which will decide their fate, beginning on Saturday against Partick Thistle. Oh and those new players? They still haven’t settled in.
On Sunday at Easter Road, James Collins contrived a hopeless miss from only a few feet. The fans were horrified, although if you were watching on TV some sympathy was possible, as the cameras zoomed in on the striker’s face just as it turned wobbly pink. He looked in his embarrassment as if he had just trod on a kitten (rather than the inner thigh of Jamie MacDonald, the Hearts goalkeeper). Plenty of excuses have been made for Collins (he tries hard; he works alone) but time is fast running out for the only player outwith the Old Firm this season to be hired for a fee, as it is for Hibs.
Liam Craig, another player recruited by Pat Fenlon, has been no less disappointing, given that on Terry Butcher’s arrival he was installed as captain and brought in from left midfield to centre which everyone thought he would prefer. From being man of the match in the New Year derby win, his form has slumped. He is not the only culprit but, unlike others, he comes with a decent top-flight pedigree which the fans hoped might have proved useful at these tense time. When players are struggling they tend to get rid of the ball quickly, booting it high, although Michael Nelson thumps it even quicker and higher than Craig.
These guys are still around from the previous manager’s reign, and still trying to salvage Hibs’ reputation as well as their own. Rowan Vine, another of Fenlon’s recruits, was despatched to Morton shortly after Butcher’s arrival, but not without a hitch. For being emblematic of Hibs’ season, a goal-shy striker stranded on a garage forecourt having filled his vehicle with the wrong fuel will take some beating.
Hibs are in a tight spot everywhere you look. On the pitch, in the (real) league table and in the stands which were half-empty for the only fixture that really matters. In the manager’s office where poor Terry chops and changes, summons players from oblivion and sends them back, and can’t turn things around. When he took the job he joked about being unnerved by his office having windows (at Inverness Caley-Thistle there were none). If he hasn’t done so already, he must feel the need to lie down in the dark.
And what about the chairman’s office – what’s going on in there and what’s going on in Rod’s head? Petrie must have thought his new man, even though he was required to take over someone else’s team, could have affected running repairs which would have got Hibs to higher than one point above the play-offs. He must be alarmed that every time the ball went stratospheric on Sunday, it wasn’t just greeted by shouts of “Hoof!” from an away end mocking Hibs’ supposed belief in the flair ideal, there were boos from the home fans as well.
This year there will be no cup final ticket scramble by which Petrie can persuade the faithful to sign up for next season. For two years now, the size of the Hibs support has been artificially inflated by this ruse, just as the presence of Leigh Griffiths gave a misleading picture of the team’s ability to score goals. Petrie didn’t tie up Griffiths when he had the chance, which the fans who question the club’s ambition hold against him. Now the chairman must wait to see if Collins, or some guys who score even less frequently, can save Hibs. Then, even though he can justifiably say there has been poor reward for the funds he made available last summer, he must back Butcher if he still believes this is the manager to turn the club around. Petrie must be as bold as Butcher must be with his formation and tactics, and as bold as the players must be the next time the only impediments to a goal are some stray Jambo testicles.
BT Sport Q&A: Rangers | Hibs | Neil Lennon
THIS week’s BT Sport video Q&A looks at whether Rangers fans will buy season tickets and if the club’s supporters will force a change of ownership.
The form of Hibs under Terry Butcher is also examined following the Easter Road side’s derby defeat while the future of Neil Lennon is also considered following the announcement that his assistant Johan Mjallby is to depart at the end of the season.
• Email your Scottish football question for the BT Sport panel to answer. The next show will be recorded on May 7 after St Johnstone v Celtic with the video available on The Scotsman website the following day. You can also tweet us @TheScotsman.
A line-up of experts will handle your questions after each BT Sport game. Most match days, the team includes Darrell Currie, Derek Rae and Gary McAllister.
Over this season, BT Sport will air 30 SPFL matches plus 10 Rangers games from the SPFL League One.
• T&C We can not guarantee which presenters will answer your questions. Questions are vetted and no correspondence will be entered into.