Steve COWAN admits he’ll be on an emotional rollercoaster as he watches Hibs and Motherwell battle it out on Friday night.
As much as the former striker would love to see the Fir Park outfit hang onto the coat-tails of the Old Firm, he knows that would only add to the woes of the Capital side.
The contrast between two of Cowan’s old clubs couldn’t be more stark, Stuart McCall’s side emerging as genuine contenders for the annual title of “best of the rest” while Hibs struggle at the foot of the SPL table, hovering just two points off bottom place before this weekend’s fixtures.
The second of the SPL’s experimental Friday night games will be Pat Fenlon’s first in charge of the Easter Road club, the Irishman having taken a seat in the stand as he watched his new side capitulate against St Johnstone last weekend.
But, while it’s been well-documented that Fenlon has become Hibs’ fifth boss in just four years, John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes and Colin Calderwood having all come and gone in almost no time at all, the apparently smooth transition which has seen McCall follow in the footsteps of Mark McGhee and Craig Brown almost as quickly, has been somewhat overlooked.
The rapid change of manager in Edinburgh has inevitably brought a huge “churn” of players as each has sought to remould the squad he has inherited to his liking.
New faces have also replaced old in Lanarkshire but, as Cowan, below right, pointed out, the pace of change has been less pronounced, McCall needing only to tinker a little with his squad rather than overseeing a wholesale transformation.
The upshot has been that while Motherwell have lost players such as Mark Reynolds, David Clarkson, Jim O’Brien and John Sutton, they have maintained an experienced core, stars like Stephen Craigan, Steven Hammell, Keith Lasley and Steve Jennings while adding a little more in the shape of Michael Higdon and Stephen Hughes.
Cowan said: “The nucleus of Motherwell’s squad have been playing together for the best part of four or five years, time in which younger players like Jamie Murphy have been allowed to continue their development.
“The fact that in the last few years they have finished third in the SPL and reached the final of both the Scottish and League Cups is a result of the stability they’ve had.
“Stuart McCall has been able to come in and has only made one or two changes, Higdon and Omar Daley for example, to the squad and he’s kept the same footballing philosophy. He’s doing a really good job.”
For Fenlon, though, it’s a case of Hibs starting all over again with Cowan anxious to see the former Bohemians boss bring in a few older heads to help nurture the undoubted young talent within his squad.
And he believes the starting point has to be to make Hibs much more difficult to beat, successive managers having conceded the Edinburgh side has been far too easy a touch for opposition teams.
To that end, Cowan admitted to being surprised Calderwood didn’t bring more defenders to Easter Road, former MK Dons defender Sean O’Hanlon the only addition in that department when it is borne in mind that on-loan Celtic youngster Richie Towell is regarded very much as a midfielder rather than a right-back.
Utility man Ian Murray and Michael Hart are the only other experienced players in that back division, leaving Hibs to rely on youngsters like Paul Hanlon, Callum Booth and David Stephens, all Under-21 internationalists but, according to Cowan, still in need of a guiding hand or two.
He said: “Motherwell have had good continuity in terms of the playing squad which Hibs haven’t really enjoyed. Many of the players that have been brought in haven’t worked, they’ve not really gelled.
“I’ve watched Hibs in each of their last three games and they are badly in need of someone getting a hold of them, organising them and making them difficult to beat, not just the back four but midfield in terms of their defensive work.
“Yes, you want to score goals. Garry O’Connor started the season in terrific form and will score goals again while Leigh Griffiths is still finding his feet a bit but the side needs experienced defenders.
“The likes of David Wotherspoon, Victor Palsson, Towell and Stephens have all played at right back when it is clear that while they are good, young players, that’s not their position, while on the other side I believe Hanlon is a centre half rather than a left back.
“I like Hanlon a lot but last weekend to me he looked a bit nervous, lacking confidence, not quite sure of what he should be doing.
“Sometimes you need to be able to take a youngster out of the firing line, to let them sit in the stand and watch, that’s all part of their education.”
Again pointing to how the younger players in the Motherwell side always seem to have an old head at their shoulder, Cowan said: “To me Hibs don’t seem to have any leaders out their on the park, guys who will talk to the youngsters to give them that little bit of guidance.
“Football is all about getting through the next five minutes, the game ebbs and flows as you gain or lose momentum and you need to know when it is right to dig in and keep it tight but at times Hibs seem to turn into a team of individuals.
“I don’t know Pat Fenlon’s character or make-up but I’d imagine there could well be three or four one-to-ones with players to tell them exactly what he thinks and how he sees them within the team and club.”
Billy Brown, confirmed as Fenlon’s assistant, laid it on the line to the players following the 3-1 defeat by Saints, warning them that their own jobs could be on the line if results didn’t improve, and Cowan admitted he has a genuine concern for Hibs should they continue to perform as they have so far this season.
He said: “I feel sorry for the fans, Hibs are a big football club, one which is well thought of. I’m sure at the moment they’d be happy to see a winning team and not worry too much about silky, attractive, free-flowing football.
“They are in a relegation battle whether they like it or not. If Christmas becomes January and they are still down there then it becomes desperate.
“Aberdeen, another of my old clubs, are also involved in it while it is a tragedy to see another big club in terms of Scottish football struggling no team has a God-given right to be up the top just because you have a bit of a name.
“You have to work hard and earn the right.
“I’ve been in relegation battles myself and you need a strong group of players in that situation.
“It’s all very tight between the bottom three or four, everyone is scrambling for points and the fear for everyone is that the others will suddenly put a wee run together, pull themselves out of it and leave the others deeper in trouble.
“Managers will play the psychological card and say their team will only be looking after itself and while it’s true everyone will be looking to see how the other teams are doing.”