IT IS just as well for Hibernian that Terry Butcher has never been one to shirk a challenge. Faced with Saturday afternoon’s evidence at Easter Road, any less sanguine soul would have turned tail and abandoned all thought of taking over as manager of the Edinburgh club.
At least, from Butcher’s point of view, Hibs’ 2-0 defeat by Inverness offered a warts-and-all picture of the team he will take over today. They had also lost their three previous games without scoring a goal, but here they looked more demoralised than ever. Shorn of self-belief and purpose, they were as rudderless as they had been in the months before Pat Fenlon’s arrival two years ago, when the new manager had to resort to a lucky bag of loan signings to steer clear of relegation.
And at least, for those home supporters wondering how well their prospective new manager would fare, there was living proof out on that pitch of how well Butcher can lick or kick a side into shape. Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the club he is leaving behind, have no big names or costly buys. What they do have is a resolute competitiveness combined with no little skill. Their manager leaves with them lying second in the SPFL, a position they have held for much of the season so far.
Inverness were a decent side before Butcher’s arrival and they will be again, but there is no denying the way in which he has galvanised them since taking over in January 2009. True, he was unable to stop them being relegated that season, but he took them back up straight away, and last season led them to fourth place, their highest finish so far in the top flight.
What is more, he achieved that in altogether less favourable circumstances than exist at Easter Road. The crowds and stadium are smaller at Inverness, and the resources more modest. The potential at Hibs, unrealised for so long, is altogether greater.
Butcher will have some money to spend. Not millions – not with the proudly parsimonious Rod Petrie as club chairman – but probably as much as every other club in the SPFL bar Celtic. But his first task – one he would choose to undertake anyway before entering the transfer market, even with the window being closed until the turn of the year – is to assess the current squad. To look at them, individually and as a collective, and ask if they are merely underachievers or if they are simply not up to the task.
There is little doubt that over the past few years Hibs have consistently failed to realise their potential. Like any other club, they have no right to expect either trophies or even regular European football, but they should be doing a lot better.
In a league without Rangers, and in which Hearts, banned from new signings, are effectively an Under-20 side, a team of Hibs’ size should be challenging towards the top of the table. Instead, they lie seventh, with more defeats than wins to their name so far. Fenlon brought in the bulk of a new team over the summer, yet at present, but for the 15-point deduction with which Hearts started the season, there would now be only four points between the two Edinburgh clubs.
Some of the new signings have done a decent job. Midfielder Scott Robertson, for one, has maintained his own standards over the past couple of weeks in the face of a general decline. Striker Paul Heffernan, though below his best in the past couple of outings, is an intelligent reader of the game who on form can coax better performances out of the midfield. Liam Craig and Michael Nelson, both missing on Saturday, have also shown themselves to be decent recruits.
On the other hand, there are serious questions about many other squad members, notably the two strikers who joined before Heffernan surprisingly became available, Rowan Vine and James Collins. But the good news for that pair and anyone else about whom Butcher may be sceptical is that they will have time to prove themselves. Even when the window does open, Butcher will not rush into the market. January is not the best time to buy players, as Fenlon found out in May 2012, when his New Year recruits who had beaten the drop were humiliated by Hearts in the Scottish Cup final.
And in any case, for all that they have played badly in recent weeks, Hibs are highly unlikely to be dragged into a relegation battle this season. Freed from the fear of the drop or the burden of excessive expectation, their new manager will have time to tinker with the team. If he gets into the top six, so much the better. But the appointment of Butcher is about bringing long-term stability to Easter Road, rather than attempting a quick fix.
The other key reason why Butcher will go into this job with high hopes, and why Hibs supporters should be very pleased about the appointment, is Maurice Malpas. At Sydney and Brentford without his assistant, Butcher was not half the manager he has been elsewhere; at Motherwell after Butcher had moved on, Malpas floundered. The two are better together; of that there is no doubt. What is more, a proven combination of manager and assistant is precisely what Hibs have been lacking in recent years.
They paired Colin Calderwood with Derek Adams, only for the latter to return to Ross County six months later. They tried to shore Calderwood up with Billy Brown, then tried something similar with Fenlon and Jimmy Nicholl. No matter the quality of those assistants – and it would be easy to make out a case for them being more able than their No 1s – they were part of a makeshift, patchwork job, running repairs carried out by Petrie.
There is, however, nothing makeshift or patchwork about the Butcher-Malpas partnership.