IT WAS, by anyone’s estimation, a beautiful sunshiny day down in the East Lothian countryside. Birds chirruped and fans in shorts gathered – the curious with a day off and nothing better to do, but also some grimly determined souls who wanted to see this thing through. By the end, 14 Hibernian players – an entire team, plus three subs – had left the club.
Terry Butcher might have termed yesterday the first day of phase two of his management – maybe even the Day One proper, given the clear-out had long been predicted but as the season was still ongoing, couldn’t happen until Hibs’ fate was known.
As the club crash-landed into the Championship, it seemed the manager himself was not certain to escape the chop. At around 1:30pm yesterday – when chairman Rod Petrie and new chief executive Leeann Dempster rumbled into East Mains – we wondered again if the cull might not just be confined to players.
Butcher was able to retain control of the list and as grass-cutters swept over the pitches at the training complex he was scything through the squad, discarding those he doesn’t want for the task of returning Hibs to the Premiership. But as some left the luxurious base for the final time, they wanted the world to know that it hadn’t entirely been the players’ fault.
Like everyone else, former captain James McPake was summoned to East Mains for an appointment with the boss. From his car he said: “I was told that I’m not part of the manager’s plans and I’m gutted about it. I loved playing for this football club. I had some good times and I had some very bad times. It’s probably going to come out that it’s all the players’ fault – but you can’t blame it all on the them.”
This sounded like criticism of Butcher’s efforts – and probably Petrie’s overseeing as well – as McPake went on to mention that the club had managed to reach two successive Scottish Cup finals before the former’s arrival. The centre-back had an injury-ruined 2013-14 and didn’t feature at all in recent weeks but he stressed he could have done. “Could I have contributed? 100 per cent yes. I’ve been fit and training for ten weeks so I definitely could have played a part. I’m not saying I would have made a difference but I was fit enough.
“That’s the thing I’m most disappointed about, not getting the chance to help Hibs stay in the Premiership. It’s a fantastic football club, Sunday was heartbreaking and it was devastating to be relegated. Everyone is totally gutted by what happened but we had enough chances to save ourselves and didn’t take them.”
Most of the players didn’t stop to talk to reporters and the man from Sky TV. Tom Taiwo – also on the list – speeded up in his Audi as he exited the gates. Paul Hanlon – another who’d been injured recently – tried to cover his face with a hand until he realised this made driving his Mercedes difficult. Then came Michael Nelson with his personalised plate, Alan Maybury (another casualty, modest Ford) and Scott Robertson in an equally unflashy Clio who at least offered a friendly wave and later tweeted: “To all hibs fans that are rightly angered, u don’t deserve what’s happened to ur club.”
At the club base where the feats of past captains Davie Shaw, Pat Stanton, Tommy McIntyre and Rob Jones adorn the walls, yesterday was a bad day for Hibs skippers. Liam Craig, the current incumbent, was told that even though he is under contract the club wouldn’t stop him looking for another team. And Kevin Thomson went too.
“I’ll not be staying,” he said. “It’s devastating and it’s hard because everyone knows how much I love this club. Unfortunately the manager has a different opinion to a lot of people. I have to respect that and now I’m looking for a new job.”
Thomson has had his issues with the management team of Butcher and Maurice Malpas but he remained a favourite of the fans who seemed to have forgiven him for quitting the last most-promising Hibs side for Rangers. The crowd chanted his name when he joined the ultimately doomed effort against Hamilton Accies from the bench; unfortunately his last act was to miss the first penalty in the shoot-out.
“I expected it to be honest,” Thomson said of his axing. “I think it’s only natural when you consider the way he [Butcher] has been with me since he came in. I’ve no idea what he has said to the other boys but I’ve just wished them all the best as it’s never nice to leave a club.”
“I would like to think I tried to play my best to repay the manager when I did get in the team and put in some good performances. Unfortunately Sunday was not one of those but it’s hard to judge somebody on just a single game of football. What happened is devastating as I’m a Hibs fan and I’m hurting like all the rest. It breaks my heart to see the club in this situation and for me to have been part of that is not good.”
Thomson said he wished his entrance could have affected the play-off in Hibs’ favour. That he and the Easter Road faithful had finally kissed and made up was of small consolation. “I feel I’ll be able to come back and watch a game there now. The way the fans welcomed me onto the park gave me goosebumps. I’d love to have been able to change the game. I tried my best to get a hold of the ball and calm us down a wee bit. But from the first minute to the last we were second best.”
Still the cars swept out into the sunshine and a much better day happening just about everywhere else: Danny Handling in a BMW, Jason Cummings in a Punto with a ball in the back, Sam Stanton in a VW which sounded like its big end had gone and seemed to pretty much sum up Hibs right now.
Where was the elusive – as in not playing much, or not doing much when he plays – Owain Tudur Jones? Then we remembered he was on international duty with Wales. Hopefully Champions League winner Gareth Bale didn’t ask him: “How was your weekend?”
Where was James Collins, the striker who’d found goals all too elusive? Had poor positioning landed him in the wrong location and had he missed the meetings? We counted them in and out. Fourteen gone before the chairman’s arrival and there could yet be more. Butcher himself left at 5pm, after three-and-a-half hours of talks with his superiors. By then the faces at the gates were all quite sunburnt. He waved but looked determinedly ahead. This tough day had always been coming, though it was only expected to involve the loss of players, not the club’s status as well.