But like the hidden iceberg which sank the Titanic, relegation reared up out of nowhere to shatter Butcher’s ambitions of taking his chequered managerial career to fresh heights in charge of Hibs.
The 55-year-old has now gone down with the ship, sacked yesterday after a tenure of just 29 games. Hibs supporters’ main focus in the wake of their club’s drop into the second tier of Scottish football may be the removal of chairman Rod Petrie but, as ever, the buck has stopped at the manager’s door.
When Butcher was appointed as successor to the unlamented Pat Fenlon in November, he was described as “head and shoulders” above all other candidates for the job by Petrie.
It wasn’t his imposing physical presence or larger than life personality which earned that description from Petrie. It was Butcher’s excellent work at Inverness Caledonian Thistle, riding high in the Premiership at the time, which made him the outstanding choice for the vacancy in Petrie’s eyes.
Even among Hibs fans, who have long since wearied of Petrie’s track record in managerial appointments, Butcher’s infectious enthusiasm provided a sense of optimism that he might just be the answer to the on-field malaise at the club. “People might say it is a big task but, if we get the team right and playing with the passion and commitment we want and we expect, I think the fans will like it,” said Butcher on the day he was formally unveiled as manager.
“What do I regard as success? Getting Hibs playing good football, playing with pride and passion – and being a difficult team to beat. There are all kinds of ways you set your team out to play. In a way, just like Caley Thistle, I said it was about stamina, style and steel.”
The initial signs were relatively encouraging for Butcher. While Hibs remained less than aesthetically pleasing, he seemed to instil greater substance among the players as they lost only one of his first nine games in charge – and that a narrow 1-0 defeat by champions Celtic at Parkhead.
There were four victories in those opening nine matches and a sense that Butcher had created a platform upon which he could build progressively and constructively. A run of three consecutive wins over the festive period, culminating in a 2-1 derby victory over Hearts on 2 January, took Hibs into the top six and seemingly well placed for a solid second half of the season. But it proved to be as good as it got for Butcher at Easter Road.
Hibs suddenly went into a tailspin of increasingly wretched performances, including a home defeat by second-tier Raith Rovers in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup, which left Butcher visibly agitated and bemused on a weekly basis.
Having made it fairly apparent from an early stage that he would be seeking to radically reshape the first-team squad when his first summer transfer window came around, it became even more problematic for Butcher to get the best out of the players he had inherited from Fenlon.
He managed to make three loan signings at the end of the January window but Daniel Boateng, Danny Haynes and Duncan Watmore all failed to make any kind of telling impact. In all, Butcher selected 25 players for first-team duty but could not find the combination necessary to halt the decline in performance levels.
In the end, the statistics were eye-wateringly poor. Hibs won only two of his last 21 games in charge. They lost eight of the last nine, including two defeats by an administration-hit Hearts side whose spirit, commitment and passion in adverse circumstances contrasted sharply with the feckless and often feeble efforts of Butcher’s players.
Even then, the freefall into the relegation play-off place remained a major surprise to most observers. Just one victory in those closing weeks of the campaign would have avoided such a fate and surely bought Butcher time over the close season to perform the kind of surgery on the squad he intended.
But the play-off final itself seemed to sum up the growing belief among supporters that Butcher was simply the wrong man for the job. A 2-0 first-leg win over Hamilton Accies at New Douglas Park should have all but guaranteed safety. The second leg at Easter Road, however, was a footballing horror story for Butcher as Hibs were completely outplayed by Accies, who turned the tie around and won it on penalties.
It has taken Hibs another 16 days to decide to dispense with Butcher’s services and the former Rangers and England captain must now take stock of being sacked as a manager for the fifth time. An irrepressible figure, he has always bounced back in the past after previous setbacks at Coventry City, Sunderland, Sydney and Brentford.
But even if it does not take him too long to look forward, Butcher may find it hard to avoid a measure of regret over his decision to leave Inverness for Hibs last November. He seemed to have found his ideal managerial home in the Highlands where, after being unable to save them from relegation after joining in January 2009, he won the First Division title at the first attempt and went on to firmly establish their top-flight credentials.
We will now never know whether Butcher could have effected the same kind of turnaround with Hibs. As they begin the search for his replacement, he faces the prospect of rebuilding his managerial reputation once again.