JUST before Terry Butcher was officially unveiled as Hibs’ new manager in November, he turned up for a game at Easter Road against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, his then employers, wearing a flat cap and trenchcoat. This was his attempt to be incognito.
Hibernian 0-1 Kilmarnock
Scorer: Kilmarnock - Boyd (44)
As an angry mob of home fans congregated outside the stadium on Saturday, seven months later, he might have been advised to reach for the same garments. These supporters were not waiting to offer him the compliments of a season that had just reached a terrifying new nadir following a defeat that consigned Hibs to a relegation play-off.
Of course, the fact that there was a similar “welcoming committee” outside the front porch as long ago as July, after Hibs’ first home game of the season had ended in a 7-0 defeat by Malmo, underlines that these problems are not entirely Butcher’s own doing. There was another such gathering after a defeat by Hearts in October, which helped convince predecessor Pat Fenlon to tender his resignation. Such rancour has been a feature of Hibs’ season, but knowledge of this must not make things any easier to bear for Butcher. Normally when he comes into the room, he cannot help but light it up. When he entered the media suite at Easter Road on Saturday, a chill descended. “I am devastated,” were the first words he uttered. From outside, through an open window, the jeers could be heard. Significantly, many of the chants were directed at Butcher who, until this point, has been protected by the more urgent anti-Rod Petrie agenda. But, seemingly, no more. The protest movement against the chairman/interim chief executive is still very much alive. However, Butcher joined him in the stocks on Saturday.
“We put a lot of effort into the game again, and made chances – we just have not put the ball in the back of the net,” lamented Butcher afterwards. “I have been saying the same in press conferences for the last ten matches.”
Indeed, he has. In these last ten matches, Hibs have scored just three goals. It is a damning statistic and Saturday’s game summed up why they are heading to either New Douglas Park or the Falkirk stadium a week on Wednesday, for the first leg of their Premiership play-off final.
Whoever Butcher turns to, the ball will simply not land in the net. On Tuesday night against Ross County, he placed his faith in youngsters Jason Cummings and Danny Handling. At the weekend, he decided to give James Collins another chance alongside the surprise choice of Paul Heffernan, thought to be out for the season. The gamble of picking Heffernan, who has not played since March, did not work out, while Collins was, well, full of effort but lacking any goal threat whatsoever.
Two of Hibs’ best chances fell in the opening half an hour – a Scott Robertson shot that was well saved by Craig Samson, before a header by the midfielder was cleared off the line by Barry Nicholson. Hibs posted a decent start, as they have done on numerous occasions in recent weeks, but then blew themselves out, as has also happened often.
One cannot underestimate how deflating it must have been to reach the cusp of half-time still level, and then see Kris Boyd do what he does best by converting a half-chance stylishly into the net. Alan Maybury and Jordon Forster hesitated momentarily while pondering who was best placed to clear Ross Barbour’s cross, and Boyd wheeled to steer a shot past Ben Williams. Hibs now had to score not once, but twice. In 45 minutes. How they wished the old slope was still a feature of Easter Road, because, without such an advantage as Hibs attacked the Famous Five stand, the task of scoring even once proved completely beyond them.
Boyd passed up at least another two chances to score and, having been broadly supportive in the opening 75 minutes, the Hibs crowd began to turn. It was clear now that the game was up. Liam Craig hit the bar with a shot. But even if this effort had gone in, Kilmarnock looked comfortable enough to withstand any late rally by the home side, which didn’t materialise in any case.
As the final whistle sounded, jeers poured down from three stands, while the Kilmarnock fans cavorted with joy in the away end. What a difference just six days make. On the previous Sunday, Kilmarnock manager Allan Johnston experienced what he described as his worst day in football, after being on the wrong end of a 5-0 hiding by Hearts. But yesterday he admitted his team had been fired up by some pre-match comments made by his opposite number. Butcher revealed on Friday that he had already planned his post-win celebrations. In truth, he then qualified this statement by saying he was only trying to think positive thoughts on the eve of the game.
It is getting harder and harder to do this at Easter Road, although Butcher did raise a smile as he looked forward to the prospect of facing “fresh opposition” in the play-off. Whether this helps Hibs find a way to goal, only time will tell. If not, Butcher may need to find a new disguise.