There is an iconic image reproduced on the front cover of the new book by Richard Gordon detailing Scotland’s heartbreaking World Cup expedition to West Germany in 1974. It shows a despairing Billy Bremner after he narrowly failed to score against Brazil and put Scotland into the knock-out stages for the first time. The head-in-hands pose is apt, because it is what John Blackley feels like doing when asked to consider the desperate current plight of Hibernian.
Blackley, who helped promote the World Cup 1974 book having been a member of the Scotland squad while a player with Hibs, believes it is “very difficult” to see how the Easter Road side can avoid the nightmare scenario of losing their top-flight status as they prepare to face either Hamilton Accies or Falkirk in a Premiership play-off final. Blackley, who also managed Hibs in the 1980s, yesterday backed Terry Butcher to re-ignite the club.
However, Blackley fears yet another transitional period in the club’s history might have to take place in the Championship, because he does not know where the goals will come from next week, while the team always seem likely to concede. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Blackley, who, in Scottish Cup final week, can boast of associations with both Dundee United and St Johnstone, where he enjoyed spells as assistant manager.
However, it was the plight of Hibs which occupied his mind yesterday, following a weekend when Butcher’s side guaranteed themselves two further fixtures on which rest their Premiership future. Blackley would like to see Butcher and Maurice Malpas, his assistant, handed time to turn things round.
It is particularly dismaying for Blackley to observe the struggles that Hibs currently have in front of a goal. In certainly his first spell as a player at the club, scoring was never an issue. A team does not become known as Turnbull’s Tornadoes for being goal-shy.
“I really do think Terry and Maurice are the men for the job,” said Blackley. “But they have got to have time to make changes. There has to be a change at Hibs, they’ve done nothing for a number of years now.
“They have to change the squad,” he added. “There is a failing in the group and you have to look at the players. Terry has to bring his players in – guys he thinks can do a job.”
As much as it pained him to say it, Blackley says he has prepared himself for Hibs to be relegated. “They’ve no goals and they keep giving away goals at the back,” he said. “It’s a recipe for disaster. Where are they going to get their next win? They’ve got to try and get it over the next two games. I think it is going to be very difficult for them to stay up,” he added. “Obviously I’d like them to stay up, but it’s a difficult situation. And there is no guarantee they’d come straight back up because the Championship is going to be a very competitive league next year. There is going to be a lot of money in it. There’s Hearts, there’s Rangers and there is possibly Dunfermline. It’s going to be a fantastic league to be involved in but only two teams will have the chance to get out of it.”
Blackley managed Hibs for just under two years between 1984 and 1986, after succeeding Pat Stanton, whom he had assisted. This is not a time remembered for success in the league, although Hibs’ record under Blackley is certainly favourable in comparison to the team’s current predicament, having won only once in 19 matches. Blackley also steered Hibs to a League Cup final and gave Gordon Durie an opportunity to break into the first team. Given the financial restrictions at the time, avoiding relegation was judged to be something of an achievement.
Butcher will not be treated to such a sympathetic assessment, even if he manages to lead Hibs to victory in the play-off. In a statement posted on the official Hibs website on Sunday night, chairman Rod Petrie described 11th place in the table as a “dismal outcome” and “well below the capabilities of the management team and the players”.
Butcher is not the first to have encountered difficulties in the manager’s chair at Easter Road. Asked whether Hibs were a difficult club to manage, Blackley remarked that he found it hard because he was trying to push through change too quickly. He blames himself to a degree now. “I look back on my term and I always felt I had to get Hibs going in two years, rather than in four or five years,” he said. “I didn’t like what was happening when I was manager, but I created my own problems.
“It wasn’t the chairman, Kenny Waugh, or the Press, it was me. I was picking the team and taking the training, but I found it difficult to handle the Press. And I found it difficult to handle the chairman because sometimes we didn’t see eye to eye. But he was a decent man and I got lucky and became an assistant manager, which I was much better suited to.”
• Blackley was speaking at an event to promote a new book on Scotland’s World Cup campaign of 1974 by Richard Gordon. Scotland 74: A World Cup story was published yesterday by Black & White publishing, price £11.99