Inside Hibs' Lee Johnson sacking: Morning board meeting, falling off tightrope and where beleaguered club goes next

When the cinch Premiership fixture list was released in June, many Hibs fans were delighted. St Mirren at home first, then Motherwell away, then Livingston at home. Three teams that finished beneath them last season, three fixtures they won last season. There was an expectation of a strong start to the 2023/24 league campaign.
Hibs chief executive Ben Kensell and director of football Brian McDermott will be part of the recruitment process.Hibs chief executive Ben Kensell and director of football Brian McDermott will be part of the recruitment process.
Hibs chief executive Ben Kensell and director of football Brian McDermott will be part of the recruitment process.

The reality is very different. Three games in and Hibs sit bottom, the only team out of 12 with no points. Five goals scored, eight conceded. Rock bottom of the Premiership. It is a situation that has led to the departure of manager Lee Johnson, axed on Sunday in the wake of a 3-2 defeat by Livingston less than 24 hours earlier.

Johnson, who was appointed on a four-year contract in the summer of 2022, was sacked following an emergency board meeting on Sunday morning. The venom from the stands at Easter Road was too much for the club’s hierarchy, who knew that failing to act could jeopardise their season further and lose even more of their fanbase. By lunchtime, Hibs had a brief statement published announcing that the 42-year-old Englishman, along with his assistants Jamie McAllister and Adam Owen, had been relieved of their duties following what chief executive Ben Kensell described as a “disappointing” start to the league season.

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Kensell could have used a much stronger term. Failing to take any points from their opening fixtures is not acceptable for a club of Hibs’ stature, even if there is the slight mitigating factor of a run in the Europa Conference League. Johnson and his players clearly struggled with the Thursday-Sunday-Thursday-Sunday churn but given the resources at his disposal, Johnson was expected to do much, much better.

Ian Gordon during a UEFA Europa Conference League qualifier between Hibernian and Inter Club d'Escaldes.Ian Gordon during a UEFA Europa Conference League qualifier between Hibernian and Inter Club d'Escaldes.
Ian Gordon during a UEFA Europa Conference League qualifier between Hibernian and Inter Club d'Escaldes.

It has felt like Johnson has been walking a tightrope for some time. A former Hearts midfielder, the ex-Sunderland boss’ appointment was met with scepticism by a portion of the Hibs fanbase. Failing to get out of the groups in last season’s League Cup put him on the back foot straight away and many of the signings under his watch failed to inspire, including failures such as Jair Tavares and Momodou Bojang. He went into the festive period fighting for his job and it is to his credit that he survived the season, a 3-2 win over Motherwell in early January proving to be the catalyst for a reasonably strong finish to the season, finishing fifth and qualifying for the Europa Conference League. Yet with Johnson, a slip never seemed far away.

The Englishman can rightly point to wretched luck with injuries last season, with key players Martin Boyle, Aiden McGeady and Kevin Nisbet robbed from him for much of the campaign. Yet the streaky nature of the 2022/23 campaign, plus some damaging defeats by Hearts, meant that he had little margin for error at the start of this term with the board or the fans. The hierarchy, led by the Gordon family, backed him: Elie Youan was signed on a permanent deal, Dutch forward Dylan Vente came in for nearly £1million, Dylan Levitt was signed from Dundee United and Will Fish returned on loan from Manchester United. They expected a return on their investment.

While Kensell referenced the dismal start to the league season, the 2-1 defeat by Inter Club d’Escaldes also played a part for both the board and the fans. Hibs smashed the Andorrans in the return leg to progress in the Europa Conference League and avoid a catastrophic early exit from the competition but the seethe from the travelling supporters from that Pyrenean loss, plus the embarrassment of the performance and lack of apology from Johnson, put him in a more perilous situation. Beating Luzern 3-1 at home in the same competition took some of the heat from the situation but losing to Motherwell in between the two matches against the Swiss meant avoiding defeat against Livingston was a must. The grim display, the manner of the goals conceded and the eye-raising team selection sent Hibs fans into a fury. Beaten 3-2, the majority had seen enough, and so had the board. Johnson’s post-match interviews wore all the hallmarks of a beaten man. He knew his time was up.

A very entertaining and open individual – probably to his own detriment, as many fans did not take to his press conferences and mannerisms – Johnson wore his heart on his sleeve. He was desperate to be a success at Hibs and craved attacking, free-flowing, victorious football. He would often set up his teams to press hard with many forwards in his ranks, but that came at a defensive cost. You knew you’d get goals when watching Hibs – but too often they came against them. Johnson found it hard to settle on a preferred starting XI and chopped and changed the team too frequently. A win percentage of 38 per cent from 52 games was not good enough. And while far from losing the dressing-room, the squad had a mixed relationship with him, with assistant boss McAllister very popular with the players. There certainly wasn’t a case of downing tools, and it is clear there are some very good individuals at Hibs who can help them post victories and climb the table.

Lee Johnson had a win rate of 38 per cent at Hibs.Lee Johnson had a win rate of 38 per cent at Hibs.
Lee Johnson had a win rate of 38 per cent at Hibs.

Former captain David Gray will hold the fort – his third stint as caretaker – for Thursday’s ECL play-off against Aston Villa. Trailing 5-0 from the first leg, it is a dead rubber, but the trip to Aberdeen next Sunday takes on huge significance. Hibs do not want to be further adrift. Gray is likely to be in charge for that match too, before the international break kicks in and a two-week break comes for domestic football.

In the meantime, where Hibs go next will be fascinating. Under the Gordon era, they have stayed away from the tried-and-trusted domestic route, appointing Shaun Maloney and then Johnson. The early favourite with the bookies is Scott Brown, himself enduring a poor start with Fleetwood. More seasoned bosses such as Kilmarnock’s Derek McInnes and St Mirren’s Stephen Robinson are probably the pick from the Premiership, while the out-of-work Neil Lennon – of course, formerly of Hibs – and ex-St Johnstone boss Callum Davidson are instantly available. A very swift appointment is not anticipated.

Whether Hibs fans will entirely trust the current regime, including CEO Kensell and Ian Gordon, son of deceased former owner Ron Gordon, is up for debate. They are tarred with the brush of two sackings. The next appointment will not fall on one single person’s shoulders, with recently appointed non-exec chairman Malcolm McPherson and director of football Brian McDermott expected to take lead roles. Yet there is growing discontentment from fans with Hibs’ performances and decision-making since Jack Ross’ sacking in 2021 and work needs to be done to repair some serious damage. And then there’s the issue of recruitment, with no manager in place to have the final say on the last week of the summer transfer window. Hibs have until Friday to do more transfer business before the window closes and it is glaringly evident that more defensive-minded players are needed to balance out a top-heavy squad. McDermott is likely to have a very busy week.

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Hibs under Johnson were an erratic team, capable of brilliance but also calamity. But a club often viewed as a maverick, the Easter Road outfit is now in desperate need of some stability and leadership.