IMPOVERISHED performances and damaging results may be the primary cause for concern, but Hibernian’s place in the SPFL Premiership is also imperilled by football’s acute sense of irony and its seemingly endless capacity for mischief-making.
When Hearts were virtually assured of relegation by the pre-season imposition of a 15-point penalty following insolvency, you could have fired a scatter-gun into any crowded pub in Leith and failed to hit a single soul who could conceive of the Tynecastle side being instrumental in taking their city neighbours down with them.
But the latest renewal of the Edinburgh derby, in the west end of the city tomorrow afternoon, offers the home side an opportunity to inflict a defeat on their rivals that could help drag Terry Butcher’s strugglers into the frantic and hostile scramble to avoid the second-from bottom finish that would take them into a bone-chilling play-off against the runners-up in the Championship.
Having met three times this season (Hearts are 2-1 ahead) and with both now certain to be in the bottom six after the league split, another two collisions are due and Hibs’ form has been nothing like convincing enough to persuade anyone that they are certain to find either fixture rewarding.
The Easter Road side’s last match before the split is against Aberdeen, opponents they have met twice without gaining a single point – or even scoring a goal. Derek McInnes’s resurgent Pittodrie team are full of confidence and committed to maintaining second place in the Premiership in order to assure qualification for Europe.
Defeat in both matches would almost certainly suck Hibs into the quicksand, where their attempts at escape would be ferociously challenged by the other four teams with the same objective, St Mirren, Partick Thistle, Kilmarnock and Ross County.
These are extremely trying times for Butcher, who arrived at Hibs with glowing credentials and high expectations as a result of his exceptional work at Inverness. But, almost impulsively candid in conversation, whether in private or in exchanges in a room full of media representatives, the big Englishman has frequently been what could be called “uncompromising” in his assessment of many of the players in his charge.
As another famous, top-class player discovered a number of years ago, such public verbal assaults are ill-advised in any manager who requires the help, support and commitment of the dressing room, even if it is one that is crammed with mediocrity.
This former player had spent all of his long and distinguished career with one of the Old Firm partners, but his first appointment as a manager took him to a part-time club in one of the lower leagues. After watching his new charges go through their first training session, he entered the dressing-room, closed the door behind him, and addressed them thus: “The first thing I have to say to you is that you are all here because, basically, ye cannae play.”
When he told me of this experience, I offered the view that his inaugural speech would not be entirely certain to get the players on his side, not the wisest course for a manager on his first night in the job. “I know, I know”, he replied, “but I couldn’t help myself. I had spent all of my career at a big club in the company of top-quality players, and I couldn’t believe that players so poor could actually get paid for what they did.” He didn’t last very long in management and has been happily employed for years as a first-team coach.
Jimmy Nicholl avoided the same pitfall when he took up his first managerial position at Raith Rovers in 1990, thanks to the presence of an old-timer at Stark’s Park. “On the first night,” he recalled, “I sat in the stand incognito and watched them in training. Now, I had played most of my career with big clubs, such as Manchester United, Sunderland and Rangers and I was amazed that the guys at Raith couldn’t even do simple functions, the kind of thing I had always considered to be just routine.
“But there was an old handyman hanging around and when I mentioned this to him, he said something very sobering. He said, ‘You have to remember, Jimmy, that most of these fellas have spent their day down a hole in the road or up a ladder. They haven’t had the privileges you’ve had’. He saved me from making a fool of myself.”
In many cases, it will be too late for Butcher to modify, or even retract, some of the criticism he has directed at his players, but, knowing the strength of his convictions and his insistence on proper application to the job, it would be no surprise to discover that he is quite indifferent to hurt feelings among players for whom he has little regard.
Perhaps, too, he has been given assurances by his chairman, Rod Petrie, that he will have some scope in the matter of a summer recruitment drive. But, at most clubs, acquisitions have to be made in tandem with departures. In that event, the Hibs manager could encounter another, possibly harmful consequence of belittling the abilities of his squad: that is, that he may have made them less saleable than they might have been.