January is a month that has long been associated with rushing headlong into new fads such as dieting and fitness. It rarely ends well.
This tends to apply for football clubs who spring into action in similarly decisive fashion and with the same, often disappointing, results.
Many seek to overhaul when, in reality, just a gentle change of focus is required. At Hibernian in recent seasons, the desire to spark an uplift in fortunes as quickly as possible meant they were among the worst offenders for trying to change too much, too quickly.
This was particularly apparent in 2012, when nine new players were signed by then manager Pat Fenlon at this juncture, seven of whom arrived on loan.
Rather than bring new players in, Terry Butcher wonders whether the January transfer window is not a better time to trim the squad and aim to leave it leaner and more efficient. Butcher being Butcher, he used typically expressive terms to illustrate what he meant yesterday. As though contemplating the chores to come this spring in the garden at his new base in North Berwick, he pondered doing “a bit of pruning, a bit of shredding”.
The Hibs manager is already reported to have told the likes of Kevin Thomson and Rowan Vine to seek pastures new.
“Sometimes it’s with a Flymo, sometimes it’s a little pair of scissors – sometimes it’s a big machete,” Butcher continued, warming to his trimming theme. “That [machete] won’t be the case here but these things happen in football. Players move on.
“Our fans have to be patient because January is a difficult time,” he added. “You know what you want but you can’t always get it. Sometimes things just turn up. But I’m not going to throw money away on players who I feel aren’t any better than what we’ve got.
“We’d like to increase the quality and see a few new faces come in as we look to stay in the top six and finish as high up the table as we can. But I won’t panic. In the past at Hibs, players have come in [at this time] who haven’t added to the squad.”
And don’t the Hibs supporters know it.
No-one is saying the Easter Road side do not require reinforcements, least of all Butcher. He proved this point by revealing that Jamie Murphy had been among a number of targeted players on a list drawn up by chief scout Steve Marsella. The striker has now gone and ruined things by starting to hit form again for Sheffield United.
But Butcher is confident that no major surgery is required at Hibs as they prepare to face Aberdeen in tonight’s televised league clash at Pittodrie, in what is another test of how far they have come under the new manager. Last weekend’s away draw at Tannadice, having led 2-0, underlined that, while clearly improving, Hibs are a work in progress, an assessment the manager agreed with yesterday. But he is conscious of the risk of interrupting the current improvement by making wholesale changes. “It’s cosmetic, more than anything,” he said, with reference to what is required in the coming weeks. “A bit of tinkering.”
The need to bring new players in has been reduced somewhat due to the return to form – after being restored to his natural position on the left side of the park – of Lewis Stevenson, while Paul Cairney has been similarly rejuvenated on the other side of midfield. Butcher’s options have also now been increased with the news that Alex Harris has been included in the squad for tonight, and is expected to feature at some point. Harris has not played since breaking a bone in his ankle in Hibs’ first league game of the season against Motherwell.
“Alex is back in the squad which is a boost,” said Butcher. “We’d have liked to get him some game time but our Under-20s are in Turkey. It’s just great to see him back and he’s itching to play again. We’ve tried to protect him after his injury but he’s 100 per cent now and raring to go.
“Did I like the look of him from afar last season? Not when he played against Inverness Caley Thistle! As an observer, Alex was always one who excited me. If you look at the Scottish Cup semi-final last season, the way he went about his work at Hampden, and what he can do – it’s exciting. So, it’s good to see Alex in the squad, but he’s got a bit of competition for a place.”
Indeed, Butcher has already warned the 19-year-old that he cannot expect to walk straight back into the side, due to the form of Stevenson and Cairney. Both have been rejuvenated under Butcher, the former due to the simple procedure of playing him where the left-footed players wants to play, on the left side. “We’ve assessed the players well and they continue to surprise us,” said Butcher. “Lewis is a case in point, he has improved beyond our dreams and expectations. Well beyond them. He’s grabbed the opportunity with both hands.”
Stevenson himself yesterday recalled the last time he faced Aberdeen, back when he was still getting to grips with playing at right-back. Although he rated it as one of his better performances at full-back, Stevenson was blamed for the goal that set Aberdeen on their way to a 2-0 victory in October, after he gave the ball away to Gregg Wylde. “I’m not going to dwell on that,” he said.
It was clear teams had started to target him as a weak link and Stevenson admits to having felt conscious about who he was up against on the afternoons he featured at right-back, a sign that he was playing with fear rather than with the expression evident in recent weeks. “I’ve had a new approach since the new manager came in and I feel a lot more positive in my own game,” he said.