IT WAS easy to sympathise with Leeann Dempster last week when she went on to a Hibernian supporters’ website to complain about the “constant negativity” she has found since becoming chief executive at Easter Road.
No-one likes to be criticised while trying to do their job, and when criticism grows from a trickle to a torrent it can indeed become, in her words, “counter- productive and demotivating”.
But sympathising with someone in a difficult situation – and Dempster has one of the most difficult jobs in Scottish football right now – is not the same as agreeing with their analysis of that situation. And in this case, it appears that Dempster’s analysis is entirely the wrong way round, as well as being a prime example of the problematic way in which the club treats its supporters.
Talk of “negativity” among a section of Hibs fans implies they are just a bunch of whingers. In reality, there is a lot for them to be “negative” about – so much so, in fact, that many of us, looking on from the outside, are continually surprised by how uncomplaining they are.
I’ll spare you the list of managerial comings and goings at this point, and refrain from mentioning the humiliations Hibs have suffered in big matches over the last couple of years. All you need do is look at the league table.
This is Hibs. Off the field one of the best-run clubs in the country, by common consent, but currently in fourth place – on goal difference – in the Championship. Granted, fourth is a better position than they have been in for some time, and Saturday’s win over Livingston was one of their best performances since Alan Stubbs took over as manager. But the longer-term picture is one of sustained decline, and there is no obvious excuse for that decline similar to the financial collapse suffered by the other two big clubs in the Championship, Hearts and Rangers.
What should Hibs supporters have done when they saw their team’s slow slide down the league end in relegation at the hands of Hamilton? Say “Bad luck, chaps, never mind, there’s always next season”?
What should they be doing this season in response to a series of so-far-indifferent results? The answer from the club’s board would be “keep backing the team”, but to do that you really have to be given some grounds for optimism.
Dempster’s remarks are the wrong way round because they appear to imply that fans’ complaints are a big part of the problem rather than a response to that problem. Of course, a bad atmosphere at home games can have a detrimental effect on players’ performances, but that atmosphere is not conjured up out of nowhere – it’s a response to previous bad results.
In other words, it’s a vicious circle: poor results lead to an acrimonious atmosphere, which makes it harder for the results to improve. Similarly, a club can benefit from a virtuous circle, in which good results produce a positive atmosphere, which helps players to perform better.
But the improved performances come first. You simply can’t expect thousands of happy clappers to offer their vociferous backing no matter what is happening on the park.
So the “negativity” shown by a section of the Hibs support is understandable. Some of them protested when their club was relegated, and some continue to criticise the current regime, with chairman Rod Petrie remaining the principal hate figure. But so far the majority response – and this is something that should worry Dempster far more than a few intemperate words bashed out post-match in a chat room – is apathy.
Some supporters continue to turn up at Easter Road every second week and suffer in silence. Others have given up completely, and it will take a lot more than the odd decent result to lure them back.
Perhaps the faithful customers who keep on attending are the ideal for Dempster. But the erosion of the Hibs fan base has to be a big concern, and, what is more, it’s often the case that the fans who complain most are the ones who care most.
That section of the support, the ones for whom their team is about a lot more than 90 minutes every week, should be cultivated by a club’s hierarchy. Instead, the people who run Hibs – and this goes well beyond Dempster – seem to regard them with, at best, suspicion.
Take the group of fans who, with the help of Supporters Direct Scotland, recently organised an online survey about the club, which they invited their fellow-Hibs supporters to complete. The official reaction from Hibs, those fans felt, amounted to: “How dare you organise this without our approval?”
The response to that, of course, was simple. In this country anyone is free to carry out a survey about attitudes to anything, just as everyone is free to refuse to complete it. Approval is not required.
Eventually, according to the organisers, Hibs relented and said they were happy for fans to take part in the survey. But even that softened stance seemed to be another example of the paternalistic attitude to the support that predominates at Easter Road – and has done so since long before Dempster moved from Motherwell. Of course, if Hibs get a decent result from Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, such concerns will fade into the background for a time, because a significant majority of fans at any club would rather concentrate on the football and leave politics well alone. But a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the current regime will resurface sooner rather than later.
And when it does, the club will need a more nuanced response than a simple appeal to stop carping. Because, while we are constantly reminded that Sir Tom Farmer saved Hibs for the community, right now the people who run the club look more remote from that community than at any time in the quarter-century since he took over.