AS TERRY Butcher mulled over an Edinburgh derby defeat which left Hibs fans wondering how much lower the team can plummet, there were words of comfort yesterday from one of his predecessors.
Alex McLeish, who was relegated with the Easter Road side, doesn’t think history will repeat itself.
“Their current form is not very encouraging,” said McLeish. “Have they got enough of a cushion? Well, losing can become a habit. It seems a long time since Terry had three points so there are concerns. I’m sure he’s trying to avoid the R word – relegation – but I don’t believe Hibs will go down.”
Big Eck was in the modest, portacabinned surroundings of Milton AFC, but they’re the pride of Bannockburn and leaders of their local league. He didn’t watch Sunday’s derby having decided to walk into Stratford on what, in his neck of the woods, had been a nice sunny day – but he retains “a lot of affection” for the Hibees whom he managed from 1998 to 2001.
McLeish arrived too late to save Hibs – who were managed by Jim Duffy for most of the 1997-98 season – from a drop to the old First Division, although he did engineer a win over Hearts to offer them faint hope. In fact, beating Hearts was a trait he was to repeat regularly after Hibs’ return to the top flight – the only sustained spell since the 1970s when they could be said to have dominated the fixture.
“It was too late in the day,” he remembered. “Relegation was horrible. For any club that goes down it’s a devastating blow, most of all to the supporters. Players will always come and go but for the fans, the club is their life. Managers, coaches – and hopefully players – are aware of this. The most important thing we all can do is make those people happy.
“That was the determination I had when I took the Hibs job. We had to take a step back to go two forward. We rebuilt, came back and had a good couple of years.” McLeish said he was confident the beleaguered Butcher can go on a similar journey, while missing out the R bit. “I’m sure Terry will keep Hibs up. They won a few games at the beginning for him so the evidence is there. And if he manages it I bet he can’t wait until the summer to change things.”
What about Hibs’ alleged soft centre – did he believe it existed as one of Easter Road’s less flattering traditions? “It’s funny, but I’ve just come from having lunch with Alex Smith who’s overseeing things at Falkirk right now and he remembered Bob Shankly talking about this. So for years there’s been this kind of stigma.
“I must say that my childhood memories of Hibs, from watching the Saturday night highlights, are of a dynamic, good footballing team. When I went in there I wanted to get that identity back and I’m sure Terry will want to get it back as well.”
McLeish conceded that the Championship, featuring Rangers and in all probability Hearts, would be a far more daunting prospect than that which faced his Hibs in 1988-89. Should the unthinkable happen to the current team, their ability to get back first time would depend on the level of investment in new players afforded to Butcher. “I knew I had good support from Rod Petrie [then chief executive, now chairman]. Our first game we lost at home to Stranraer. I wasn’t sure about the team at all. I told him: ‘We’ll be there or thereabouts, Rod, but I don’t see us getting up easily. We’re lacking a couple of bits of quality.’
“Rod backed me with a few bob and we brought in Russell Latapy, Franck Sauzee and Mixu Paatelainen – three fantastic players, top, top drawer.”
Petrie has his critics in a near-permanently exasperated support, among other things for not thinking big enough. Hibs fans look at the revival in Aberdeen’s fortunes after years of under-achievement and think: “That should be us.” McLeish defended his former boss. “Rod Petrie was tremendous for me.” He believed Butcher would be able to enjoy a similarly productive relationship. “Terry needs quality in his team. I’m sure he’ll want to put his own identity on the club with the kind of players that he did so well with at Inverness Caley Thistle.”
Turning his attention to the wider landscape, McLeish said that Hearts and Hibs being absent from the top tier at the same time as Rangers would be a “pretty poor show for Scottish football”. Of Hearts he said: “It’s horrible to see them in this state, although it makes the result they got against Hibs all the more remarkable.” And what of Rangers, another former club?
Their “demise” has been horrible, too, but they’d “romped” League 1, as they should have done. “Of late they’ve looked a bit stale which is maybe to do with them having the league wrapped up for so long. Do I use the word ‘bored’? But the [Scottish Cup] semi-final will be the acid test.”
On paper Dundee United should win. But, as managers would have it, games are not played on paper. As United would have it, this one’s not even being played at a neutral venue. The fact the semi was happening at Ibrox would, Big Eck added, be “massive”.
• Alex McLeish was visiting Milton AFC to encourage nominations for the 2014 Scottish FA Awards, presented by McDonald’s. For more information and to nominate your grassroots hero visit McDonalds.co.uk/awards