The strongest impression gained from Hibernian’s post-match press conference following Monday night’s defeat by Aberdeen is that the players and manager are not panicking. But perhaps they should be.
Terry Butcher did acknowledge that Hibs are now in a fight. It isn’t yet a pickle, he explained, because the players are giving their all – “They worked hard tonight, I can’t fault them for that” – and they now have a series of games “against teams we have already beaten this season”. The first of these comes a week on Saturday, when Hibs travel to face St Mirren.
Admittedly, Hibs have indeed beaten St Mirren this season, but that was back in September – and when the team was under the charge of Pat Fenlon. Since then they have drawn 0-0 in Paisley (in Butcher’s first game in the dug-out) and then lost 2-3 to St Mirren at Easter Road, where, following Monday’s limp 2-0 loss, Hibs have now won only twice at home this year. Indeed, they have won only two times full stop. Next Saturday would be a good time to earn their first away victory of 2014.
It is a run of form that means the extent of Butcher’s impact is being debated by Hibs fans, one of whom made the droll comment on Monday that at least “they got points in the bag under Fenlon”. It certainly places in question Butcher’s attempt to paint as positive Hibs being at home in three of their five bottom-six fixtures. “Every other team [in the bottom six] would love to be in our position, we have three of the five games left at home, and we have a slightly better goal difference than the others,” Butcher pointed out.
The trouble is Easter Road has become a vast, unvisited cemetery of hope, judging by Monday’s crowd – 9321, with 1365 of them in the Aberdeen end. It isn’t Butcher’s fault, but Hibs only recorded four home league victories in all of 2013. Yet it is a measure of how poorly Hibs have fared in recent weeks that Fenlon’s troubled reign is actually being reassessed.
A run under Butcher in which just 19 points have been earned from a possible 57 risks becoming ruinously bad. It is certainly no improvement on the 14 points from a possible 33 earned under Fenlon in the first 11 league games of the season.
Under Butcher, the fear is that Hibs have regressed further, with the manager stymied by the difficulties presented when trying to improve players he didn’t sign. Monday night proved a point. There were similarities with the home defeat by Aberdeen by the same scoreline in October – the game when Fenlon claims to have concluded he could do no more for the team (although he did not resign until after the League Cup defeat by Hearts in the next midweek). They did at least manage a shot on target that bleak Saturday afternoon through Paul Heffernan, although Gregg Wylde, who scored Aberdeen’s second goal in the 90th minute, did impishly wonder whether Barry Robson’s attempted passback to goalkeeper Jamie Langfield had been Hibs’ only effort on target. It was much the same story on Monday as Hibs were made to pay for their timidity.
The shortage of good, canny players at Butcher’s disposal in the shape of a Barry Robson or a Willo Flood is compounded by a crushing lack of confidence. Players simply do not want to take responsibility with the ball. Defeat begets defeat, and confidence ebbs away. Remarkably, Hibs are the lowest goalscorers in the league – four short of Hearts.
Butcher plans to work on the confidence issue “on the training pitch”. Presumably, however, he has been seeking to address this problem in recent weeks on the training pitch as well, to little or no effect. Of course, he is working with several disaffected players, with the manager having made it clear that he is preparing for a clear-out. It could make things difficult for him as he continues to seek the magic formula.
“I am looking at trying to find a blend, a system,” Butcher said on Monday. He admitted he was jealous of opposite number Derek McInnes, who was able to name the same team for the second time in succession on Monday. “We are changing from game to game,” Butcher added. “It is not conducive to a settled team, no doubt about that. But you are looking to see what you can hold on to in the previous games. And I can’t hold on to a lot.”
He did try to treat Heffernan’s late withdrawal as significant. Let’s face it, Heffernan, decent player though he is, is not going to make the type of difference required to match Aberdeen, so superior did the opponents seem. The striker’s groin injury, while unfortunate, was not the reason Hibs lost. However, Butcher placed great emphasis on the enforced change afterwards, complaining that it summed up Hibs’ luck at present.
Butcher is a friendly and open type of character. He reacted to Monday night’s defeat with some gallows humour. “A goal would be good, even a shot,” he lamented, when asked about his hopes for the coming weeks. Had there been a dressing-room showdown? It didn’t seem like there had been one, given that striker James Collins appeared to be interviewed at the same time as McInnes, about 20 minutes after the final whistle. Butcher did take slightly longer to appear but if the manager had locked his players in the dressing room, then Collins must have displayed a fleetness of foot that was missing as he attempted to elude his markers earlier.
Butcher has beguiled most of those he has come into contact with since his arrival at Easter Road. But he knows he is not immune to criticism. His methods have not found universal favour.
Kevin Thomson was suddenly brought in from the cold for the game against St Johnstone last month before dropping out of the first IX reckoning once more. The chorus of jeers that greeted Collins’ substitution in the 89th minute was not so much an appraisal of the striker’s own performance. Rather, it was disapproval of Butcher’s decision to remove someone clearly suffering from a lack of confidence at such a late juncture. The negativity provoked by this decision cannot have helped the hard-working Collins’ self-esteem. It was surely better leaving him on at this late stage.
As well as Thomson, Butcher has exiled other players only to bring them back in again. Defender Daniel Boeteng was recruited from Arsenal reserves simply to play in Hibs reserves, it seems. Butcher spoke of resting Alex Harris and then started him in two successive matches.
There are even worrying stories of assistant manager Maurice Malpas reacting badly to criticism from supporters sitting behind the dug-out. These are unhappy times on both sides of the city.
Butcher clearly cannot wait until the end of the season, when he will be able to begin properly engaging with the job in hand. The problem is knowing when the end of season is going to be. Despite the positive noises being emitted from Easter Road, the play-offs are now a looming possibility.