Over the past few months, both under Neil Lennon and since his exit, the team have sunk to eighth place and now languish five points adrift of the top six with eight games to play before the split.
This scenario wasn’t in the script when Hibs were in the thick of the battle for second place and Neil Lennon was proclaiming that he wanted to make the club a serious contender in Scottish football once more. Indeed, it is worth remembering that it was only four months ago that Hibs sat second in the current campaign before the wheels came off for the recently-departed Northern Irishman.
Given the way things have unravelled at Easter Road since the end of October, there will be temptation in some quarters to simply write this season off and concentrate on rebooting for the summer, when Heckingbottom will have a proper chance to get his ideas across and stamp his authority on the team.
In the intense and ultra-demanding, often irrational world of professional football, however, playing the long game is rarely possible, especially when supporters are already in a state of disenchantment, as is presently the case within sections of the Hibs fanbase. For all that any new manager would wish to have the luxury of time to assess their new squad and get to grips with their new working environment, the reality is that Heckingbottom will be expected to have some kind of short-term impact in order to give the team a chance of making the top six.
While Hibs are in a state of league-table limbo whereby they are unlikely to be relegated or qualify for Europe, the importance of making the top six shouldn’t be underestimated, both on a financial and reputational level. In monetary terms, a top-six placing secures a greater share of the end-of-season prize money, therefore potentially increasing the playing budget for next season. In addition, Hibs, if making the top six, stand to host both Rangers and Hearts after the split. Those money-spinning fixtures would be lost if the team are cut off in the bottom six.
Playing out the season with a run of relatively meaningless and uninspiring games against sides battling relegation would do little for the morale of everyone at a club which has become accustomed to being in the thick of the battle for prizes in the past few seasons. In basic terms, it would represent a setback to the club’s post-relegation progress, which had been pretty impressive up until the past few months of post-McGinn/McGeouch toil. To go from challenging for second place one year to finishing in the bottom six the next would automatically prompt “same old Hibs” slurs from the sceptics.
While making the top six – or not – this season will not define Heckingbottom’s reign, it will go a long way to dictating the early mood music. The Yorkshireman himself will be all too aware of the importance of making a swift and positive impact at Easter Road after finding that there was no way back following an underwhelming start to his last job in football. It was exactly a year ago that Heckingbottom, with his stock high after an impressive reign at Barnsley, took over a Leeds United side siting tenth in the Championship, seven points adrift of the promotion play-offs.
He was unable to get a tune out of the Leeds players, however, winning only four and losing eight of his 16 games in charge before being jettisoned at the end of the season with the team in 13th and his reputation tarnished. A cautionary tale if ever there was one about the need to make a swift impact at a club with high expectations.
In trying to achieve this at Hibs, Heckingbottom is aided somewhat by the fact his first two games, assuming he is in charge this weekend, will be against two of the league’s bottom three. They host Hamilton Accies this Saturday before visiting Dundee next Friday. The last time Hibs faced these fixtures, back in the autumn, they won them by an aggregate score of 9-0. While nothing can be taken for granted given their struggles in recent months, this is a reasonably favourable period, in terms of upcoming fixtures, for a new man to take the reins and bed himself in.
Given that the players have been able to beat both St Mirren and Raith Rovers in recent weeks without a permanent manager, there is no obvious reason why Heckingbottom, with some motivational words and a batch of recent signings also eager to prove themselves at their new club, shouldn’t be targeting six points from his first two games.
Such an accomplishment would set Hibs up nicely for a potentially-crucial trip to McDiarmid Park to face St Johnstone, the side currently occupying sixth place. Thereafter, Heckingbottom will have a formidable Scottish Cup quarter-final at home to Celtic and then a run of five pre-split league games which includes fixtures against Rangers, Hearts and Kilmarnock, as well as a Motherwell side who have sneaked ahead of them into seventh place after winning five consecutive league games. The rampant Fir Park side are the form horses in what looks to be a three-way race for the final top-six place (assuming the current top five all make it) but their chances are reduced by the fact they must play every one of the top six in their last eight pre-split fixtures.
No-one could have envisaged last summer that Hibs would be pondering such permutations at this stage of a campaign in which they hoped to be consolidating in the top half. Ordinarily, merely making the top six wouldn’t represent any kind of success for one of the country’s big city clubs. In the current circumstances, however, if Paul Heckingbottom can somehow achieve such a feat, it would go a long way to signalling his intent and restoring optimism at a club in need of fresh impetus.