Stuart Bathgate: Hibs in freefall before Butcher

AFTER seeing Hibernian finally put out of their misery yesterday, Terry Butcher said their descent towards relegation had been like “watching a car crash the last two or three months”.

Angry Hibs fans vented their anger after the final whistle. Picture: Greg Macvean

The last six or seven years would be a more accurate timeframe, because the collapse which culminated yesterday in demotion from the Premiership began long before the former England captain moved from Inverness to take over at Easter Road.

Butcher has never criticised any of his predecessors as manager either by name or by implication. And whenever he has talked of deep-rooted problems at the club, as he did again yesterday after Hibs’ penalty shoot-out loss to Hamilton Accies, he has never claimed to have a unique insight into those problems.

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Instead, he has accepted full responsibility for solving them. The only caveat he added yesterday was to note that he may not be given the chance to solve them, as his employers might decide he was not the right man to do so.

For many of us who have seen Hibs slowly get worse since their last trophy, the League Cup in 2007, the first instinct might well be to suggest that rebuilding the club is too big a job for any one manager. The problems at the club are so deep-rooted that it is hard to see how any individual can turn things round.

Hibs themselves, in the person of chairman Rod Petrie, have already acknowledged as much by appointing Leeann Dempster from Motherwell to be chief executive, beginning on 1 June. Petrie’s role as interim chief executive will come to an end this week, but he will remain as non-executive chairman – effectively still the eyes and ears within Easter Road of owner Sir Tom Farmer.

Taking himself out of the firing line seemed a smart move by Petrie when it was announced at the end of last month, when Hibs still had three post-split games to go. If they had won a couple of those games and stayed up, the move would have become a very low-risk one. Petrie would continue to oversee the business. while Dempster would be there to carry the can for anything which went wrong.

Now that Hibs have gone down, the pressure remains firmly on the chairman. Already damaged by a series of unsuccessful managerial appointments, he is now clearly the common factor in the slow slide towards relegation.

Yes, as Petrie’s employer, the buck stops with Farmer, but the saving grace for the 73-year-old is that, whatever may have gone wrong under his ownership, he has propped up the club financially. Without his money, Hibs might well have been relegated – or worse – some time ago.

A small but tenacious number of Hibs supporters have been vocal opponents of Farmer for some time now. But however correct their analysis might be, that one inescapable fact remains: until one of them can come up with the money to buy him out, they are hostages to his good will. A benevolent but canny owner, Farmer has put enough money in to keep Hibs ticking over. If they won a trophy now and then, or enjoy the odd venture into European competition, so much the better, according to his strategy. But he was not going to risk untold millions in chasing success. Keeping the club’s head above water was key, and was enough to keep the vast majority of fans happy.

This canny financial stewardship seemed sensible enough for a time, especially when contrasted with the madness across the city at Hearts under Vladimir Romanov – and come the time for the club’s annual general meeting, Petrie made sure he made that contrast. But when Hibs started to sink, so the calls for greater investment grew.

To an extent, those calls were misplaced. Hibs did not need more money – they just needed to stop wasting so much on paying off managers who turned out to be duds, and players who were declared surplus to requirements when the next new boss rolled into Easter Road.

And it was at those times, when a manager was dispensed with, to be followed by a raft of underperforming players, that Petrie came to seem altogether less canny than he liked to appear. A case could be made for getting rid of most if not all of the managers who have been deposed in recent years, but the timing has often been badly wrong. Colin Calderwood, for example, was kept on when Hibs could have got compensation for him, then sacked months later.

After League-Cup-winning manager John Collins quit, Mixu Paatelainen stayed for under a year and a half before leaving by mutual consent. Hibs finished in the top six in both the Finn’s seasons at the helm.

John Hughes came next and although results were inconsistent, he took the team to fourth in his first full season in charge. Mutually consented out the door in late 2010, he gave way to Calderwood, under whom Hibs finished tenth in 2010-11.

Calderwood left months into the following season with the club in relegation trouble. Pat Fenlon had 11th and seventh-place finishes, and a couple of the most humiliating results in Hibs’ history. Finally – so far – in this list of recent changes, Fenlon left last November, to be replaced by Butcher.

There is a clear pattern here. Manager is appointed – manager carries the can for bad results – manager leaves.

If none of those managers were up to their job, the man who appointed them should take responsibility for a series of poor choices. If the problems at Hibs lie elsewhere than on the field of play, the man in charge of that side of the club should take responsibility.

At the end of the match yesterday, thousands of Hibs fans chanted angrily. It was “Butcher, Butcher, get tae f***” one minute, “Petrie, Petrie, get tae f***” the next.

To an extent, Petrie has already complied by taking a back seat. So should Butcher go?

You can understand the anger of the fans at their club’s wholly avoidable humiliation, but more managerial bloodletting now would be counter-productive. What is more, if Petrie were still ultimately in charge of appointing the next manager, what would be the odds on that one being a success?

Butcher’s reputation has been badly damaged; that much is undeniable. But he has not yet had the chance to get to grips with the problems at the club, above all by bringing in some players of his own choosing, and revolutionising the whole attitude of the playing staff. Lesser men than him have been allowed to change the squad around before being branded failures.

If Butcher goes now, Hibs are back to square one again, and they could find it takes them as long to get out of their current predicament as it did to get into it.