If Hibs are to keep faith with the under-fire Terry Butcher – and early indications are they will – then the turnover of players over the summer will have to be massive in order for the club to have any chance of recovering effectively from the torment of relegation.
Put simply, Butcher and the group of players he has just led into the Championship were a disastrous mix. The manager has proven at both Motherwell and Inverness that, given time, he can knock a Scottish team into good shape. Likewise, most of the players involved in Hibs’ demise under the Englishman had previously shown themselves to be good professionals who could cut the mustard in the Scottish top flight. Together, though, Butcher and the squad he inherited have been a match made in hell.
Maurice Malpas, Butcher’s assistant, hinted at the disconnect between the management and at least a couple of the players in mid-March when he told me: “We’ve tried to get our philosophy and our ethics into them. One or two players have struggled with it and one or two I’m sure don’t like how we go about our business, but that’s their problem, not ours.”
Interviews with the released likes of Kevin Thomson, Sean Murdoch and James McPake over the last 24 hours have reaffirmed the notion that relations at East Mains have been far from harmonious. That is not to say Butcher is a monster or that the players in question are bad professionals; it is simply that they weren’t cut out to work together to good effect.
Most people who have had dealings with Butcher will vouch for the fact he is a pleasant man, while those who had played under him previously had nothing but positive words to say about his management style. Indeed, when Butcher was being lined up for his move to Easter Road last November, Graeme Smith, the former Hibs goalkeeper who worked under him at Motherwell, told me: “He’ll make everyone at the club start smiling. That was certainly the case at Motherwell. He made the dressing-room like a family – that was probably the closest dressing-room I was ever part of and I’m sure he’ll make that unity at Hibs as well from top to bottom.”
It hasn’t happened so far and his alienation of many of his players, it would appear, has played a big part in Hibs’ remarkable slump into the second tier. Although many feel the manager should already have fallen on his sword, it is unlikely that such a determined and intelligent man won’t learn lessons from this if, as seems likely, he is allowed to start building his own team with the type of characters he feels more comfortable working with.
In an ideal world, Butcher would be able to clear the decks of even more of those players tarnished by relegation, but, of those first-teamers remaining, many are promising youngsters who should emerge stronger from the experience of the past few months, while Paul Hanlon and Scott Robertson have arguably been Hibs’ two best players of the season. Some effective recruitment over the next few months could yet allow those remaining to flourish in the Championship.
Butcher has proved himself a shrewd operator in the past few seasons at Inverness when it comes to major summer rebuilds and, even without relegation, he would still have been planning wholesale change. Relegation merely intensifies the need for the embattled manager to make sure he gets things as close to perfect as possible in his dealings over the next two months.
He needs to find a raft of players able to hit the ground running as Hibs can ill-afford to be left in the starting blocks with their old adversaries, Hearts and Rangers, having had a headstart in terms of planning for a Championship promotion push. Butcher and his much-vaunted scouting network will have to be clever in unearthing new faces with the quality and character required to handle the demands of a promotion battle at a club where angry supporters won’t tolerate any more calamity.
The chances are that whoever he recruits will be more likely to buy into his methods and help repair squad harmony. If he can add some much-needed pace and creativity, it would allow the manager to banish the archaic ‘hoofball’ approach that blighted the second half of the season.
For all that Hibs fans have only ever known wretched times under Butcher, it was only seven months ago that he was shaping up as manager-of-the-year material as his vibrant Inverness team ripped up the Premiership with an effective brand of high-tempo attacking football. He is also steeled by the experience of being relegated in his first season at Caley Thistle and bringing them back up at the first attempt.
Although fortunate still to be in a job, Butcher has shown enough in the past to suggest that, with his own foot soldiers alongside him in the trenches, he could yet redeem himself at Hibs.