AT THE 19th hole of what Gordon Strachan regards as his local Edinburgh golf club, the chat has been dominated by the ever-deepening hole being dug for themselves by Hibs, his football team as a youngster. “My friends down the club all go watch them regularly and you wouldn’t want to know what they are saying,” stated the Scotland manager.
Judging from the various former players and supporters’ chiefs who have taken to the airwaves and press these past few days, we can guess the general tenor. Their disgruntlement is sure to be focused on the contributions of chairman Rod Petrie and owner Tom Farmer to the calamities that could yet see the Easter Road club forced into a relegation play-off on their way to demotion.
Strachan says it would be “terrible for the guys at my golf club, a body blow for the community I come from and a body blow for all of us if Hibs were lost to the Premiership”. With one win in 15 games ahead of a derby this afternoon against an already-relegated Hearts scenting blood, this scenario remains a real one – if not the likeliest outcome, despite fears caused by Terry Butcher’s side having tanked on the park of late.
Inevitably, questions of player spend and that catch-all football term “ambition” have been propelled at Petrie and Farmer like burning spears by a faithful in revolt. Yet that picture doesn’t quite square with the real landscape on Leith. Petrie, who unfortunately has something of Dad’s Army character Captain Mainwaring about him, was lambasted last week for devoting much time at the club’s last annual general meeting to mocking the plight of Hearts. Now there is the possibility that next season both Edinburgh clubs could be in Scotland’s second football tier, except that Hearts will be debt free while Hibs’ liabilities will hover around the £6 million mark.
Yet at that meeting late last year, the Easter Road club also announced their football wage bill was £3.9m. That can hardly be said to cast Hibs as desperately unambitious since only Aberdeen – with a £5.2m spend – devote more financial resources to competing for second-to-Celtic-status in the Premiership.
Granted, far too much cash has been used paying performers who have not been good enough – the club have fielded 91 players in the past five years – and in clean-ups covering previous fruitless managerial eras. However, no Hibs supporter questioned the appointment of Butcher last November, nor mourned the exit of Pat Fenlon. Moreover, last summer, courtesy of the £200,000 paid to Swindon Town for James Collins, Hibs were the only Premiership team outside of Celtic to pay a transfer fee.
Other clubs have made much smaller budgets work, with regulars in the top six – a status that has eluded the Easter Road club for four straight seasons – Motherwell, St Johnstone and Inverness Caledonian Thistle all operating with player wage bills not even half of that doled out by Hibs.
Strachan was understandably not keen to enter into the specifics of what has gone wrong at a club he is understood to have been asked to manage at one stage in his career. “Don’t ask me about the Hibs job and I won’t tell you a lie,” he said on that subject.
The Scotland manager’s concern is for the greater good of Scottish football. If Hibs did go down, with Rangers and Hearts already destined for the Championship next season, it would mean three of the five biggest supporter draws being outside the weekly televised top flight. This is a problem for perception, in the eyes of Strachan.
“There are stadiums that are good for television, half-decent for the screen. Easter Road is a stadium that is good for the telly and some others aren’t. Tynecastle is good for the telly,” he said.
“There is a magic to Hibs, Hearts and Rangers all being together. I’m not being derogatory to other clubs, but it would be nice if, somehow, they could all maximise what they’ve got the same way as Aberdeen.
“I remember coming to Hampden years ago when Hibs played Livingston in the League Cup final [in 2007]. I came here with another Hibs fan and my wife. I think Broony [Scott Brown] had red hair that day. There was some crowd [around 37,000 Hibs fans]. Obviously you can’t get that crowd every week because they just don’t have the finances to do it every week. I’d also be rooting for Dundee because of my connections. It would be ideal to have them all in the top league.”
The Pittodrie club – at which Strachan achieved iconic status through his playing role in the Alex Ferguson era that brought titles, cups and most memorably a European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph – have ensured that the story of Scottish football this season has been far from strictly demise-driven. Their uplifting tale has shown that, whatever the straitened circumstances of former powerhouse clubs, the game in this country has key clubs in ruddy health.
“We’d all want Hibs and Hearts to do the same as Aberdeen,” Strachan said of the fact his old club have enjoyed an upsurge in interest and gate receipts on the back of their League Cup success and challenge for second place. “They had 40,000 down in Glasgow for that final. It’s great for everyone – from you guys in the media to different businesses. Hotels were full up with travelling fans. Even Tynecastle was great for the semi-final. It was buzzing. It would be great to have Hibs, Hearts and Rangers all back. We’d not have got 40,000 way back in our day.
“It’s not been a great time for Scottish football so all of this helps build it up again. I don’t think my Celtic friends would say it’s great for the cups to be spread around but the League Cup final was a great occasion at Celtic Park.”
And at the close of the campaign, clubs across the bottom six are enjoying increased attendances because of the battle to avoid the relegation play-offs. The threat of failure, as with success, sells in football.
“Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and Dundee could all be playing to get out of the Championship next season. You do feel for managers. But the stress at the top, or the excitement, is far more enjoyable than that stuff down at the bottom, trust me. I think the play-offs have kept everything alive. In the Premiership there is a fight over second and third and five teams involved at the bottom. I’m sure the five managers involved will be saying ‘what a rotten idea this is’ but for everyone else it has been great. Crowds are up and it’s been good. Whoever made that one up, it has been a good one.” Hibs are unlikely to offer any hurrahs on that front, certainly.