Aidan Smith: Poor signings put a spoke in Heckingbottom’s wheel of misfortune

Paul Heckingbottom shows his anxiety during Hibs' 5-2 defeat by Celtic in Saturday's Betfred Cup semi-final at Hampden. Picture: SNS.
Paul Heckingbottom shows his anxiety during Hibs' 5-2 defeat by Celtic in Saturday's Betfred Cup semi-final at Hampden. Picture: SNS.
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You’ve got to feel sorry for the staff in the club shop. I mean, what are they going to do with all those unsold “Hecky at the wheel” T-shirts?

To be blunt, the design wasn’t a classic. Unless you went around all day singing Paul Heckingbottom’s theme song to the tune of the Stone Roses’ Waterfall – and early on plenty did – then you might not have been able to identify the silhouette of the Hibernian manager against the garment’s black background or even the wheel he was hiding behind.

I thought when I saw the shirts on the racks in the close season that they were premature and I am not claiming this was stunning foresight. Perhaps Hecky’s shadowy presence was the Hibs marketing department offering qualified approval of what the manager had achieved up until that point. They hadn’t quite deemed it appropriate to use a poster for On the Buses with Hecky replacing Reg Varney, or a poster for Summer Holiday with Hecky’s head on Cliff Richard’s body, streamers fluttering from the jolly charabanc.

A good thing, too. Just in case Heckingbottom turned out to be like the Stone Roses. Too much hype too soon. Great debut album, then nothing. Promise unfulfilled, a mess by the end.

He began with a new-boss bounce. After Neil Lennon’s whirlwind tenure had blown itself out, he recorded ten league games undefeated. Stephane Omeonga instantly bought into his high press and Mark McNulty was well capable of being the lone frontman. It wasn’t the Hibs way under Lennon, who played two strikers and, if he could get away with it, two wingers as well, but when the team won the derby at Tynecastle no one minded.

After that Hecky couldn’t effect a post-split victory, losing his cool at Kilmarnock. Then he lost Omeonga and McNulty, or at least couldn’t persuade them to return, both having been loans. If he wasn’t wholly to blame for that – the players made encouraging noises but the money was better elsewhere – then allowing two holding midfielders, Marvin Bartley and Mark Milligan, to leave at the same time had been his decision.

Still, he would have some ideal replacements in mind, yes? Well, no. Joe Newell arrived, told everyone he was the box-to-box type, then spent what little game-time he was offered hanging around the left wing. Then Josh Vela came. He was the man surely to nip opposition attacks in the bud, feed Hibs’ creatives. Nope.

Both have been completely anonymous in green and white, Newell not even listed in yesterday’s obits for the Heckingbottom era. None of the other signings has made a decent mark, shown the fans the boldness that was promised. In this season’s opener – Hibs’ only win – Adam Jackson couldn’t keep the ball in the park and Christian Doidge missed three sitters.

Heckingbottom’s recruits seemed overawed that day, and have been timid ever since. The first part of that sentence is a compliment for Scottish football – our game can’t be that bad if it daunts incomers like this – but Hibs supporters understandably have parochial concerns. They’d become used to ebullient personalities such as John McGinn and Jason Cummings, guys who played with a swagger. They’ve not enjoyed players hiding away.

I sat down with Heckingbottom before that solitary success and he vowed that some of his signings would become “massive fans’ favourites”. Suffice to say that Doidge who, after that dismal start, went one worse and fluffed four scoring opportunities at Pittodrie, still has work to do before they’re going to be singing his name in Robbie’s or the Windsor where discerning Hibbies congregate.

Hecky made a good impression in that interview. He was as plain-speaking as you’d expect of a representative of Yorkshire, the self-styled “God’s own country”, and asked: “Have I just come up here to win the derby?” He didn’t win another, though, and so never got to hear an Easter Road rendition of Sunshine on Leith.

When I pointed out he hadn’t signed any Scots, he joked – at least I think he was kidding – that he’d be clearing out those who remained. He inherited Scott Allan and I assumed he would be unable to play a midfield of the returning hero, Stevie Mallan and Daryl Horgan, given some heavy lifting would be required. “Why not?” was the response. “If you don’t tackle back you don’t get in my team.” Well, there have indeed been occasions when all three have started, Saturday’s Betfred Cup semi-final being one. Celtic simply gamboled across Hampden’s open spaces.

I laughed when Heckingbottom told me a story from last season about a supporter behind the dugout imploring him to make a tactical change. This had been in his mind, he said, but he held off, not wanting the fellow going away bragging at having influenced the manager’s thinking. Cussedness turned to arrogance, though, with the infamous jibe about Allan: was there a law against substituting him? He further irritated fans when he suggested their “anxiety” had helped bring about a late collapse. Now, nervousness isn’t conducive to flair football, but in any case this team didn’t play very much of it.

How quickly everything can go wrong. You might say, even though the faithful thought they’d left those days behind, how very Hibs. The plight is grim, and not one multi-millionaire owner Ron Gordon can have anticipated landing in his in-tray quite so soon, requiring urgent attention.

Meanwhile, down at the club store, the new calendars are on the shelves. Confounding rumours they had dematerialised, Newell and Vela both feature. Doidge’s turn as Playmate of the Month doesn’t come around until next May.