In many regards, Pat Fenlon and Craig Levein found their respective reigns at Hibs and Scotland characterised by the same adverse features. In similar fashion, Hibs fans will be expecting new manager Terry Butcher to have the type of galvanising effect at Easter Road that Gordon Strachan appears to have had on the national team.
Strachan’s Scotland are now unbeaten in three games, but, more crucially, there is a sense of optimism that they are now moving in the right direction after a prolonged period in the doldrums. The mood surrounding the Scotland team ahead of tonight’s friendly in Norway is in stark contrast to the sense of despair that prevailed as Levein’s reign came to a grisly end around this time last year.
As Scotland’s World Cup qualifying bid unravelled in the first four games, fans were losing faith and interest in the team, while those that still cared were turning on the players and, more pointedly, the manager, as they did so notably in last September’s Hampden draw with Macedonia, Levein’s last home match in charge. There was a widespread sense that the team was going nowhere fast, and most placed the blame firmly at the beleaguered manager’s door.
The same could be said of Fenlon’s Hibs, certainly from the viewpoint of his vast army of critics. While Levein was destined never to recover from the 4-6-0 night in Prague over three years ago, Fenlon was ultimately unable to shake off the spectre of the 5-1 Scottish Cup final thrashing at the hands of Hearts 18 months ago.
Even when they oversaw good runs of form, there was always a sense that they were only one or two bad results away from another crisis. When things were going relatively well for Fenlon and Levein, there was merely tolerance from the stands rather than genuine appreciation of their work. Both were deemed, fairly or not, negative managers, while some felt they were out of their depth.
For all their perceived failings, both were lauded for their work behind the scenes in terms of developing infrastructure, while they both had the full backing of their players. Both had shown in the past that they can be good managers and they will probably be so again when they get their next opportunity in the dugout. However, for a variety of reasons, neither was able to deliver what their public craved at Hibs and Scotland. They were unable to generate any kind of feelgood factor around their team.
With the rancour that accompanied much of Levein’s reign now gone, there is a sense of hope building around Strachan’s Scotland. Likewise, the arrival of the ebullient Butcher has, in an instant, lifted the gloom which lingered at Easter Road for too long.
Strachan and Butcher share many characteristics, and the Englishman can be expected to go about his business in a similar manner to the Scotland manager. They both command respect from their players as a result of what they did in their own playing careers, while they both have the charisma and wit required to lift a downbeat training ground. They are bona fide motivators who have a knack for getting the best out of players. They keep things simple and are all about getting the fundamentals of hard work and team spirit in place first, with the belief that everything else will fall into place after that.
Strachan is almost a year into his gig and things are going well. It must be remembered that things didn’t happen immediately for the Scotland manager – he oversaw the worst performance of the qualifying campaign at home to Wales – but gradually he has set about lifting the national team and the mood surrounding it.
The main difference between the jobs facing Strachan and Butcher is that the Hibs manager will not have the relative luxury of simply trying to regain pride during the remainder of the current campaign. Strachan inherited a team at rock bottom and out of contention for World Cup qualification. The rest of the campaign was all about salvaging dignity and building towards Euro 2016. Hibs, by contrast, still have plenty to play for this season. They are currently seventh in the Premiership, but only ten points behind second-placed Inverness whom many expect to fade without Butcher at the tiller. With a decent squad at his disposal, Butcher will still be expected to pull Hibs into the top four, while a Scottish Cup run will also be desired after Fenlon reached the final in each of the last two seasons.
In trying to spark Hibs back into life, Butcher can take heart from Strachan’s work in resuscitating Scotland. Both men look the perfect fit for their tasks in hand.