Sir Alex Ferguson was holding forth to a group of us at the bar after a function in Dunfermline a few years ago.
In typical Fergie fashion he challenged us. “What’s the most important relationship in football?”
There were a few ums and aahs and various suggestions such as “fans and players”, “players and managers”, “managers and media”. He batted them all away.
“None of you get it. It’s the chairman and the manager. If that doesn’t work and they’re not pulling together in the same direction, you’re going nowhere.”
Adjust that for developments in the last decade or so with CEOs, majority shareholders etc the basic premise still holds true. If a manager doesn’t have the full support from and the same ambition as those who own or run a club, it’s going nowhere.
Sir Alex’s maxim has been evident at Easter Road for a long time and reached its pitiful conclusion on Sunday for Hibs as they imploded spectacularly in humiliating fashion.
But that night over a decade ago Sir Alex also asked me what was happening at Hibs, a club he had affection for due to his father’s admiration for the Famous Five and the outstanding players since, not least his great friend, Pat Stanton.
What had gone wrong for a club with a proud history and tradition, indeed a pioneer as the first British club in Europe, was it had had its soul, spirit and ambition sucked out of it by the purely corporate mentality of the club ownership.
The harsh reality is that all of the dozen or so managers who have served under the current regime has had at least one hand tied behind their back. They may have walked into Easter Road with high hopes, but if they got above their station and were too ambitious, their legs would be cut from under them, none more so than John Collins just after he had won the League Cup. His mistake was to announce publicly he wanted to go on and challenge the Old Firm.
Meanwhile, as Hibs in the last two years have slipped and slithered through arguably their most woeful performances ever and managers have tumbled overboard, chairman Rod Petrie remains at the helm, strapped like Captain Ahab to the wheel as Hibs sink into the abyss.
Fans will always live in hope but signs the club was finally beginning to atrophy under the deadening hand of the duopoly that ran Hibs, were there at the dreadful 5-1 defeat by Hearts in the Scottish Cup final two years ago. Then Hibs went on to embarrass not just themselves but Scottish football in the 7-0 Europa league defeat by Malmo at Easter Road at the beginning of this season. Some Hibs fans were still in denial as they clapped a mediocre Malmo off the pitch as if they were Real Madrid or Barcelona. But the last vestige of club spirit that had been withering under the current regime had finally expired.
Meanwhile, any schadenfreude Hibs had over Hearts’ plight came back to spit in their faces as their Edinburgh rivals, a club on its knees gasping for survival, had at least the spirit to pull themselves up to beat Hibs four times out of five this season. It was really not so surprising as – save for the Alex McLeish era – Hearts have “owned” Hibs for the last two decades, something particularly galling for fans but never appreciated by the ownership. While it dawned on even the most blindly loyal and unquestioning fan some time ago that Rod Petrie lacked the major requirement for his job – the ability to select and work with the right manger and establish a club ethos and spirit – the root of the problem was there when he was placed on the board at Easter Road.
The absentee owner, Sir Tom Farmer, had always openly professed his lack of interest or knowledge of football – why own a club, you may ask – but when Petrie was pushed into the front line, edging out football men and Hibs supporters on the board such as Douglas Cromb, Tom O’Malley and Malcolm McPherson, he was asked if he had ever seen Hibs play before. Not only had Rod Petrie never seen Hibs play, he had never been to a football match.
However, his accountancy skills were deemed paramount, by the owner, as the key qualification for what was needed to run the club. Maybe as a number two or three, but surely not as the leader, the man with a vision or strategy
But it must be said Hibs have handled their finances fairly well, relatively speaking, as far as their balance sheet is concerned. The millions earned by the sales of players as far back as Collins, Goram, Jackson, Laursen, De La Cruz, Brown, Thomson, Caldwell, Whittaker, Riordan, O’Connor, Fletcher etc, as well as the property development in the old car park and around Easter Road, have not gone to waste. Where that money has gone one is not quite sure, with hardly a pittance finding its way into any manager’s transfer budget.
While Hibs may not be not the only club with limited ambition, it is unique as one owned by people who don’t care and are not interested in football. This is why Hibs are finally where they are at today. It is a bad fit and there is unanimity among Hibs support for radical change. The chairman has failed in his stewardship. The buck stops with him. He must go.
Meanwhile, when the club owner took over Hibs when they went into administration back in 1991 he said he did it for the community. Now is the time to give it back to them, people with a passion for the club or, at the very least, someone with a genuine interest in football.