FOR deeply disgruntled Hibernian supporters, perhaps the most telling measure of their team's present plight is the possibility that, in contemplating Rangers' outstanding SPL fixtures before the split, Walter Smith will consider the one at Easter Road to be less threatening than most of the others.
Indeed, the visit to Hamilton on Saturday will, with good cause, almost certainly induce more apprehension at Ibrox than the prospect of a trip to Leith on 18 April. Last season's promotees in recent times have been highly productive compared to Mixu Paatelainen's under-achieving side, the pair now sharing seventh place in the table on 32 points.
Few, if any, of those Hibs supporters who have been bombarding website message boards and forums with their disaffection will have been provoked into a response merely by the dire performance in the 2-0 defeat at Inverness on Saturday. This was sufficiently depressing to prompt the BBC Radio Scotland pundit, Brian Irvine, to observe that "not one Hibs player deserved pass marks".
The capital of the Highlands has become a bogey venue for the Edinburgh team and, on that basis, another reversal would be no real shock. Fans have clearly become more entrenched in their despondency – and in their antipathy towards Paatelainen – by the overall disappointment of the season, most specifically the realisation that the team have one only one match since 13 December, sliding out of the league's top six and out of the Homecoming Scottish Cup.
To underline the contrast between the current form of Hamilton and Hibs, the Lanarkshire side have won five of their past six league games, in the process making up nine points on Paatelainen's team. Dispiriting as the statistics are, however, they will not have anything like as dulling an effect as the seemingly relentless sense of decline permeating the overwhelming majority of supporters, the absence of encouragement for the future.
In an online poll yesterday which asked if Paatelainen should stay or go, the vote was 303 to 28 – a percentage difference of 91.54 to 8.46 – in favour of the manager immediately vacating the premises. There are, of course, thousands, rather than hundreds, of Hibs fans, but in mid-afternoon on a Monday, with many at work, it is a reasonable sample, which could fairly be extended to the conclusion that the bulk of the club's followers support the removal of the big Finn.
In the present circumstances, the accusation often levelled at Hibs fans – that they have a rather sniffy attitude to the game, demanding quality and an aesthetically pleasing style – really does not apply. What they appear to want more than anything at the moment is an end to the erosion of credibility which, this season, has stripped the team of their former menace and turned Easter Road into a place not to be feared.
This disfigurement of a team's image as opponents to be respected is almost invariably the most wounding of the set-backs they will inevitably suffer in the course of a season. It is also the one for which the manager will be held culpable. In Paatelainen's case, the blame appears not to be misplaced.
His difficulties began long before the start of the season and, from all the available evidence, they were self-inflicted. Paatelainen's enthusiasm for playing an Intertoto Cup tie in the middle of pre-season training is unlikely to be shared by any other manager in the game.
Any to whom I have spoken have regularly criticised boards of directors for imposing commitments on their managers and players for purely commercial reasons. It is known, for example, that Gordon Strachan did not welcome the contractual obligation that took Celtic on a trip to Japan (part of the conditions attached to signing Shunsuke Nakamura) at an inappropriate time of the year.
In conversation with Billy Stark at Hampden a few months ago, the Scotland under-21 manager pondered the problem: "Managers are often forced to undertake things for financial reasons they would ideally do without," said Stark. "It's especially true during the pre-season. People have no idea what an effect a disrupted pre-season can have. It's a time of the year when you do the work that stands you in good stead in the later stages of a campaign. If something happens to upset that, it can knock a team off balance for a long time afterwards."
There is virtually unchallengeable evidence that Hibs were victims of what Stark described, easily beaten in the Intertoto Cup by Elfsborg, Swedish opponents then at a physical and mental peak at the high point of their domestic season. In the immediate aftermath, Paatelainen's players looked disorientated, unable to beat – or even score against – opposition from lower division in friendlies.
That uncertain form has blighted much of the season, but Paatelainen was so insistent over the benefits to be accrued from participation in the European exercise that he is unable to blame anyone else for its possible side effects. And he has something else to cause him unease: when the supporters turn the heat on the chairman and his board, it is the manager who gets burned.