In the wake of the 2-1 defeat at Hampden – Hibs’ second loss to their neighbours in a week – Maloney spoke post-match of what he required to improve an ailing team’s fortunes. He wanted reinforcements, particularly in the final third of the pitch, and more experience. He also expected to be backed by the board, with funds to be released in the summer to improve the playing pool.
That will still happen, but Maloney will not be the manager spending the cash. Hibs announced at 10am that, after 120 days at the tiller, Maloney has been stood down. He and his backroom staff of Gary Caldwell, Valerio Zuddas and Brian Doogan follow him out the exit door, with David Gray and Eddie May once again placed in temporary charge of first-team affairs.
This is the second time this season that Hibs have been without a manager following the axing of Jack Ross in December. Back then, Hibs’ form had nose-dived in the league following a bright start. Ross’ team were on a bad run, with just one win in nine Premiership matches and had tumbled down the table. Not even reaching the Premier Sports Cup final after vanquishing Rangers 3-1 at Hampden was enough to save Ross. This Hibs regime, headed up by US-based owner Ron Gordon, showed its ruthless streak then – and has done so again.
Maloney’s tenure got off to a bright start with two league wins over Aberdeen and Dundee United, but since then, the figures make grim reading. He presided over 15 league matches in total and only won three of them. Despite countless opportunities to reach the top six before the split, Hibs failed to do so, a meek 3-1 defeat at Tynecastle sealing their fate.
Reaching the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup, courtesy of wins over Cove Rangers, Arbroath and Motherwell, was a feather in Maloney’s cap, but his inability to revive Hibs’ league fortunes has cost them dear. He inherited Hibs in seventh place and leaves with them still in that berth, an unacceptable position for the club to find itself in given the third-placed finish of last season.
Maloney promised an attacking, attractive, successful team, but the reality was somewhat different. Hibs have struggled for goals, netting just five times in ten matches since the start of February. Of course, the sale of Martin Boyle to Al-Faisaly for £3million did not help Maloney’s cause and when analysing his reign, this must be factored in. Hibs were unable to replace the goals, assists and pace Boyle brought to the team adequately in the January window. Moreover, a season-ending knee injury to Kevin Nisbet on February 27 and Christian Doidge’s struggles with fitness left Maloney without any of the trio that terrorised Scottish defences readily last term. Yet even with Chris Mueller, Elias Melkersen, James Scott, Ewan Henderson and Sylvester Jasper as attacking options, Hibs never appeared set up in a manner that would threaten opponents, their build-up play often too ponderous.
Maloney did allude to not having the players at his disposal to execute what he wanted to do, but a reluctance to move from his principles and find other ways to win cost him dear. There was an inexperience and naivety from the dugout at key moments. Maloney never picked the same team twice, albeit often hamstrung by injury, and his substitutions often raised eyebrows among those in Easter Road.
Those traits are often what you get from an inexperienced manager. However, learning on the job is the only way to eradicate mistakes and allow development. While the players tried to buy into his methods – there is no suggestion of a dressing-room mutiny – the Hibs board was not prepared to let Maloney make any more errors. An emergency meeting was called on Monday evening for all members and after much deliberation and debate, the decision was made to remove him. Chief executive Ben Kensell informed the 39-year-old of the club’s decision early on Tuesday.
Kensell spoke earlier in the year of why Hibs had chosen Maloney and the path the club wanted to take. The former Norwich CEO said back then that he and the board took ownership of replacing Ross with Maloney and that he would be backed, but what has transpired since then concerned them. They had not seen enough from Maloney that, long term, he would improve the current situation. With one of the worst form lines in the division, fears are growing about a relegation battle, with only eight points separating Hibs and St Johnstone in 11th place. Effort levels and aggression, as shown against Hearts at the weekend, are clearly not enough for a club of such stature. In a results-driven business, Maloney’s win rate made his case hard to argue.
It leaves Gordon and his board with a huge decision to make ahead of the 2022-23 campaign. Gray and May will be in charge for the final five matches of this season, starting against St Mirren on Saturday. Even last week, Maloney held meetings with his board about next summer, so there is no new boss lined up. Hibs plan to go through a thorough recruitment process, but it is anticipated that they will choose a manager with much more experience this time around.
With the last remaining remnants of the old guard of Hibs now firmly out of the door, Hibs’ hierarchy have to get this appointment right, otherwise it will be their heads on the line. This is regression rather than progression under their watch. Those who watched Hibs regularly under Maloney will understand that enough alarm bells were ringing with their performances and results to merit decisive action being taken, however callous it feels. There is no scope, however, for getting it wrong again for a club trying to appease a disaffected fanbase and already playing catch-up with its rivals.