When it opened in December 2007 Hibernian were the envy of every club in Scotland and a good bit beyond and for each and every new signing who has smiled for the cameras in the green and white there has been unanimous agreement – the training complex is magnificent.
But as Hibs have stuttered and stumbled in the intervening years, as managers have come and very quickly gone and one or two horror defeats have been endured, fans anxious to locate the cause of the malaise have occasionally wondered if the players had become too comfortable at their state-of-the-art base in the East Lothian countryside.
Now Ben Williams has given some serious weight to the theory after the latest defeat for Terry Butcher’s side dragged them ever closer to the relegation play-offs. The team were “soft”, the goalkeeper confessed. “We have a fantastic stadium and a fantastic training ground. We’re spoiled.”
As Butcher cancelled the Easter Monday day off and summoned his charges to East Mains to sit through a re-run of the 2-0 defeat by St Mirren, one Hibee legend reacted with dismay to Williams’ admission. “I appreciate his honesty, “ Pat Stanton said yesterday, “but if the training centre really has had a negative effect on Hibs then that’s desperately disappointing.
“It’s a tremendous place, and whatever else the club have or haven’t done down the years, we must give them credit for making it available. A lot is said about the modern footballer having it easy compared to guys like me and those from further back. When a club provide something like this it should certainly be appreciated and not taken for granted. East Mains was supposed to take Hibs to the next level after the League Cup win [earlier in the year the complex opened] but that sadly hasn’t happened.”
When guys like Stanton played for Hibs, “modest” was a euphemism to describe the facilities. The club’s most revered player after the Famous Five, he was a cultured midfielder and captain of the Turnbull’s Tornadoes’ team. He scored in the first of his 617 games for Hibs, in the famous 5-0 thumping of Napoli, in the 1972 League Cup triumph and had one of the seven against Hearts in 1973 nicked off him by his old school pal Jimmy O’Rourke. But to hone those skills for the next match Stanton and his team-mates first had to find a public park.
“We got chased by the Easter Road groundsman; we got chased by the parkies of Edinburgh,” he laughed. “Our first call was usually Holyrood but if the pitches were too muddy, being professional footballers carried no clout. After trying a few other parks we could end up on the beach at Portobello – as long as the tide was out.”
This would be the Hibs players’ lot, even when they were beating Real Madrid. “The day after that game, what did the Madrid guys do? Retreat to some splendour, no doubt. Maybe we’d have been daundering down Craigentinny Road, wondering if the Seafield parkie would be in a charitable mood. We were lost souls – nomads looking for somewhere to pitch the tent. Despite that there were some real artists in my teams – Willie Hamilton who ran the show against Real and wee Mickey [Alex] Edwards. How good could they have been if they’d had perfectly flat training pitches every time?”
Stanton is seriously worried by Hibs’ abysmal run of five straight defeats and by too much flippant talk and not enough decisive action. “We’re not scoring goals and losing daft ones. Folk say we only need one win to be safe but, looking at recent performances, where’s that going to come from?
“The manager must be racking his brains and wondering how he can make the players aware of the situation. I’m sure no-one still thinks this team are too good to go down – they’d better not, anyway. But I do hear plenty of talk from the players about how they’re going to turn things around. I’d rather they just went out and performed, then told us how they did it later.”
Stanton concurs with the widely-held view that Hibs are soft. He was a player who mixed elegance with steel but in the early part of his career admits there was a softness about Easter Road until Jock Stein fixed things. “Jock brought in big John McNamee and we all toughened up. John Parke was also important in that regard. I remember a game where I was pretty pleased with how I’d played. John said: ‘Is that the best you’ve got?’ I was taken aback, but it was a good lesson.
“I’m sure Terry is having to bite his lip. Some of the guys we have at present I wonder if he can say what he thinks of them because they maybe haven’t got it in them to answer in the right way out on the park.” But what about the theory that Butcher has been more than frank and maybe showed his hand too early, de-motivating those who reckon they’re not going to be in the manager’s plans for next season, come the summer overhaul?
“I’ve heard that,” said Stanton. “Some of them are going: ‘Why should we bother – we’re not going to be here anyway?’ I don’t buy that and certainly hope it’s not the case. That kind of excuse doesn’t wash with me. If you’re a professional footballer you always give 100 per cent and if you’re in the kind of trouble Hibs are in right now, you find a way to give some more – because if you don’t you’re only letting yourself down.
“I was lucky in my career, never being involved in a relegation scrap. There’s obviously pressure on Hibs right now and what’s being said about the team won’t be nice for them to hear and read. But the biggest pressure for a footballer should be what he places on himself: to always try to play better and to always try to win.”
If one win really will make the relegation bogeyman disappear, the next opportunity comes on Sunday against Hearts. Pat Stanton will be cheering for it, sadly unavailable for selection.