Having opted to cut their losses on Monday, the Easter Road chief executive Leeann Dempster spoke yesterday and outlined a timeframe that will see Paul Heckingbottom’s successor in post by the end of the month but, stating that they were casting a relatively wide net, she said there is “no outstanding front-runner”.
“We’re very open-minded in terms of the individual we are looking for. We’ll go through the process as we have in the past. We’re determined to find the right person,” she said.
The issue of player recruitment has been a bone of contention this season, with a raft of summer signings failing to impress. That proved a massive contributing factor in Heckingbottom’s dismissal at the beginning of the week.
Losing the quality of players such as Marc McNulty and Stephane Omeonga, who had been vital to the upturn in fortunes last term, was never going to be offset by the quality of player added in the summer, with Heckingbottom, below, accused of underestimating the Scottish game. The former Barnsley boss faced further criticism for allowing both Marvin Bartley and Mark Milligan to depart and failing to find replacements as adept at playing that holding midfielder role in a league where the intensity, pace and physicality is different from the style of football played in the lower reaches of the English leagues.
He claimed the newcomers required a period of adjustment but, having splashed out more than £300,000 on Christian Doidge, a striker who has yet to deliver a league goal, and having relinquished too many leads, patience snapped when the side found themselves just one point off the automatic relegation spot more than a quarter of the way through the campaign and unable to clear the penultimate Betfred Cup hurdle in their quest for silverware.
“There’s been a lot of talk about our recruitment over the summer,” said Dempster. “I think it’s fair to say, with some hindsight, that there are areas we want to strengthen. The work will be done in January to try and do that. If we lived our life in hindsight we’d be winning the Champions League. We make choices and changes as they come towards us. The challenge will be on the guys in recruitment to make the adjustments we need in January because I think it’s obvious that we need a few.
“There’s a lot to play for. We’ve only been through one cycle but, let’s be honest, we’re nowhere near where we want to be. We don’t just want to be a top-six club and we’ve said that a number of times. We want to be a club that is competing in Europe. The series of results we’ve had is not going to put us in that position so let’s not try and kid anyone on. We need to try and be better. We need to try and improve. We’ve made massive investments in the football department over the last four or five years. We want to keep that momentum and, in terms of results, we don’t want to go backwards.
“You could argue about fine lines and luck but, at the end of the day, we need to win games. That’s the issue. Only winning games will get us up the league but I don’t think we’re out of touch. There’s a lot to play for.”
Despite the failure of her most recent appointment, Dempster has a decent record in recruiting managers, with Alan Stubbs ending the club’s 114-year Scottish Cup hoodoo, while Neil Lennon secured promotion from the Championship and then guided the team into a Europa League qualifying place in his second season at the helm.
Those successes helped draw lapsed fans back to the club and drive up season ticket sales and expectations. But, despite the bright start to his tenure, losing just one of his opening 11 games, Heckingbottom was unable to maintain those standards or live up to those demands. Having turned on fans, in a rift over the substitution of Scott Allan, a player he did not recruit and did not seem to fit in with his style of play but was lauded by the supporters thanks to previous spells in Leith, he then publicly lambasted players for being too soft, questioning their spirit as the pressure on him began to build and the run of league games without a win stretched to ten.
Dempster will be assisted in the recruitment process by sporting director Graeme Mathie and owner Ron Gordon and finding a unifying figure who believes in the club’s ambitions will be key, with candidates such as Jack Ross and Stephen Robinson being linked with the role.
It remains an attractive one, especially with the promise of a proactive transfer window.
Those dealings will be key as the club sets about redressing squad imbalances and bolstering confidence in the dressing room and the stands.