The past few years may have been something of a rollercoaster for Hibs supporters but nothing they’ve endured in that time could have prepared them for the white knuckle ride that was 2011.
It’s been without doubt 12 months of almost unrelenting misery, the few moments worth remembering almost forgotten as the Easter Road club, now under it’s fifth manager in only four years, prepares to ring in the New Year cemented to the foot of the SPL table.
Who would have thought it as the Capital outfit lifted the CIS Insurance Cup under John Collins or clinched fourth place and with it a tilt at Europe – admittedly after something of a struggle – when John Hughes was in charge?
Between that pair had come Mixu Paatelainen who, like Collins and Hughes, helped maintain the club’s record of half-a-dozen successive top six finishes. All forgotten today as SPL survival preoccupies the minds of the vast majority of those who care for Hibs.
However, as we saw out the old year and welcomed in the new, the portents were hardly promising, Colin Calderwood’s reign after he replaced Hughes last October having got off to a less than promising start.
As Hibs ran out at Tynecastle on New Year’s Day they did so on the back of a run of five matches without a win. Kevin Kyle’s last-gasp winner for the Jambos bad enough – but what was to follow was even worse.
An entire month, seven whole games without a goal and the greatest ignominy of all, crashing out of the Scottish Cup at the hands of then Second Divison Ayr United in a replay at Somerset Park.
Throughout January, though, Calderwood embarked on a recruitment drive, reshaping the squad he’d inherited from Hughes as in came, in quick succession, Matt Thornhill, Martin Scott, Akpo Sodje, Ricardo Vaz Te, Richie Towell. Victor Palsson and Jakub Divis.
Let’s wait and see what Calderwood can do when he has his own players had been the plea from above and the changes certainly had an effect, the growing threat of becoming embroiled in a relegation dog-fight evaporating as Hibs clocked up five straight wins, extending their unbeaten run to seven with draws against St Johnstone and Hearts.
It wasn’t to last, though, with just one more victory to enjoy as Hibs lumped to a tenth place finish, ending their season with four defeats.
The end of the season couldn’t come quickly enough and with it came the departure of a host of familiar faces, Derek Riordan, Liam Miller, Colin Nish, John Rankin, Graeme Smith, Steven Thicot, Francis Dickoh, Valdas Trakys, Vaz Te and Divis heading for the exit as had Sol Bamba, Chris Hogg and Merouane Zemmama earlier in the year.
Hibs welcomed back former stars Ivan Sproule and Garry O’Connor, an apparent signal of intent for the season coming, along with centre-half Sean O’Hanlon, but their arrivals were over-shadowed by a training ground bust-up between Scott and Sean Welsh which saw the young midfielder hospitalised with a fractured cheekbone.
If that wasn’t bad enough the manager’s own future became the story, both Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City signalling their intention to persuade him to become assistant to either Steve McClaren or Chris Hughton.
Calderwood did himself no favours, repeatedly refusing to distance himself from the speculation and appearing to actively encourage it with his assertion that he’d be stupid if, when handed two bags of sweets to choose from, he did not look to see what was in both,
An offer of £300,000 in compensation was reportedly offered to allow Calderwood to be reunited with Hughton, to whom he’d been No. 2 during a successful spell at Newcastle United, before Hibs chairman Rod Petrie came out fighting in a bid to hold onto the former Scotland defender.
Petrie is normally reluctant to take centre stage, which made his intervention all the more remarkable. But he did so after McClaren claimed Forest was where Calderwood wanted to be. In a stout defence of Calderwood, Petrie warned McClaren he was “on dangerous territory,” while employing a highly selective use of statistics to state his case to keep the manager.
“Played ten, won six, drawn two, lost two,” revealed Petrie, “These are the sorts of statistics which show why Hibernian wants Colin Calderwood as its manager”, those figures relating to the run of results between the close of the transfer window and “the split,” a period when “the chips were down.”
What it didn’t say was that Calderwood had won just two of his first 14 matches and, indeed, by the end of the season had tasted victory in only eight out of 32 games.
Petrie also succeeded, understandably, in narking Hughes by claiming Hibs had “now stripped away the unworkable legacy saddled upon the club by the previous incumbent”.
A clear-the-air meeting between the pair engendered an uneasy peace with Hughes no doubt, with some justification, wondering why he’d found himself on the dole having won just four of his last 28 games and yet here was his successor, with a similarly poor record, being publicly backed to the hilt.
The new season kicked off with the future of Calderwood still in question, a defeat by Celtic followed by a historic away win at Inverness, Hibs’ first in the Highlands and one which had eluded Tony Mowbray, Collins, Hughes and Paatelainen.
But as Isaiah Osbourne and Junior Agogo signed on along with Towell on a second loan period from Celtic, that victory against Caley provided little solace, as did a 5-0 thumping of Berwick Rangers in the Scottish Communities League Cup, the alarm bells again beginning to ring loud and clear as Hibs’ League form was just as miserable again.
Any side hoping for success must enjoy an impressive home record, the fact the 3-2 win over St Johnstone at the end of September was Hibs’ first at Easter Road since February serving to merely amplify why the side continue to struggle.
Unsurprisingly, Calderwood took that long walk, defeat at home by Dunfermline signalling the end, the former Spurs and Aston Villa star taking his leave with a wretched record of just 12 wins in his 49 matches in charge.
Few tears were spilled, Mike Riley, chairman of the Hibs Supporters’ Association, probably reflecting the views of most when he opined that Calderwood had signed his own death warrant – at least as far as the fans were concerned – when he steadfastly refused to commit to the club during that summer of discontent.
If Calderwood, in Petrie’s estimation, had inherited “an unworkable legacy” from Hughes, one can only wonder what Pat Fenlon has made of the situation after becoming Hibs’ latest manager.
The Irishman insists the job is no tougher than he envisaged but he has yet to see his new side win and, as he himself pointed out, the manner of the defeat by Dundee United at the weekend was nothing new.
Fenlon is well aware he faces a mammoth task to revive Hibs’ fortunes. It’s not going to happen overnight so little wonder, then, Hibs fans aren’t exactly viewing 2012 with much optimism.