CAN work become harder but more enjoyable at the same time? Not in all circumstances, but that is what appears to have happened at Hibernian since the arrival of Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas.
The enjoyment is there for all to see at East Mains, the club’s training ground, where the atmosphere is friendlier and more relaxed than it was under Pat Fenlon, who did his best to keep everyone bar players and coaches away from the place. And the hard work is in evidence too, in the double sessions that are being held on some days: on Thursday, for example, Malpas took care of his media duties then went back out on to the training pitch for finishing practice with the forwards.
A lot of hard work remains to be done, of course, and there has been no dramatic improvement since the new management team took over. But Hibs are more solid and competitive now, and the players’ confidence is steadily growing thanks to Butcher’s ebullience.
“I’m enjoying it,” Paul Hanlon said. “He’s brought in a few different things, but everyone’s buying in to what he’s trying to do.
“First and foremost, he’s working us really hard in training. He wants us to get the ball forward a bit quicker and create more chances – basically, put the other team’s defence under a lot of pressure. Since he’s been in we’ve done that in games. He’s a big personality, but at times he’s quiet, and will watch training, not say too much. But if you cross him he’ll be right on your case.
“He’s helping defenders out all the time. Maurice as well – he had a great career as a defender. Myself and the other defenders try to learn as much as we can.”
Hanlon expects to put some of that learning to good use this afternoon, when St Johnstone visit Easter Road, a match that will reunite him with his friend and former team-mate David Wotherspoon. “I’m looking forward to it – I’m sure he’ll be coming back with a point to prove,” Hanlon said of the midfielder. “He’ll be desperate to put in a good performance. He’s one of their main threats so we’ll have to keep an eye on him.
“St Johnstone are the club he supported as a boy, so he was delighted with his move. They offered a bit more security than he was being offered here. He’s had a kid now as well, so he’s settled and enjoying his football.”
Butcher is serving a touchline ban when St Johnstone visit the capital this afternoon, so will not be allowed to address his squad in the dressing-room in the hour before kick-off. But as the manager’s talks are all about varying the routine in any case, he could simply deliver his unique brand of team talk a little earlier than usual.
“When it’s time to work it’s time to work, but he enjoys a good laugh with the boys,” Hanlon continued. “When it’s going well, as long as you do your best you can enjoy it at the same time.
“He’s not done any quizzes yet – I think he used to do that on away trips. So far it’s just been his team talks which are a bit different. He goes completely away from football.
“Before the Celtic game he was telling us the whole story of David and Goliath. Eventually he brings it back to football and it all falls into place.
“It gets you thinking. Last week it got us believing we would go there and get a good result. He’s good for things like that.
“Lawrence of Arabia and George Washington came up as well. The main theme was the smaller person overcoming the giant: that’s what he wanted us to do last week.
“It just gets you thinking. It’s something completely different from football, then slowly but surely it comes back and you realise where it’s going.”
Given that Hibs still lost to Celtic last week, the David and Goliath story was not quite replicated. But, after two draws in the league and a cup win up at Dingwall against Ross County, there is already a sense that, this time, talk of Hibs making a steady improvement is more than just a tall story.