Having spent the last three seasons languishing together in the bottom six, it is with a serious sense of envy that Hibs fans watch Aberdeen, their old “underachieving” adversaries, ride the crest of a wave under Derek McInnes.
These two clubs – without question among Scotland’s five biggest – have been conspicuous by their absence from the upper echelons of the top flight for some time, with Hibs entrenched in the lower half in each of the last three campaigns and Aberdeen not finishing any higher than eighth in any of the last four. If anything, though, it was Hibs, having finished above the Dons last season and edged them out of the Scottish Cup in each of the last two years, who looked the most upwardly-mobile of the two under Pat Fenlon.
Few could have predicted a year ago, when Gary Deegan’s winner had just knocked Craig Brown’s Dons out of the cup, that the Pittodrie men would now be red-hot favourites to claim second place in the Premiership and both domestic cups. As well as giving Aberdeen fans arguably their headiest days since the 1980s, this remarkable McInnes-led revival has also served to exacerbate the sense of gloom around Easter Road.
The hope for all at Hibs was that the arrival of Terry Butcher in November would have a similar galvanising effect on their club to that which McInnes has had on the Dons, and that days such as Saturday, when they suffered more Scottish Cup humiliation at the hands of Raith Rovers, would become a thing of the past.
Of course, given Butcher’s stature and pedigree as a manager in Scotland’s top flight, that scenario remains more likely than not, but any Hibs revival is unlikely to appear quite as sudden as that undertaken by McInnes. The Dons’ resurgence may have given the impression of being a rapid turnaround, but it was not simply a case of McInnes replacing Brown and the team instantly going from being bottom-six no-hopers to the second best team in Scotland. It must be remembered that McInnes came in with five games of last season remaining and had a chance to assess the situation for himself at close quarters. Incidentally, he won only three of his first 11 games in charge inside 90 minutes, with his side taken to penalties at home to Alloa in the League Cup.
It was only in December, having been humbled by Hearts for a second time this season in November, that the Dons really started to motor. As well as having that five-game bedding-in period last term, McInnes then had the luxury of a close-season to think about things and a pre-season in which to get his ideas over and sign the type of players he wanted.
Butcher, by contrast, hasn’t yet had any such luxuries. He inherited a squad which was short on confidence after a mini-slump in the immediate aftermath of Fenlon’s exit. That said, they were not exactly at rock-bottom when Fenlon left, having just come off an impressive run of only one defeat in nine games, so it wasn’t exactly a case of “the only way is up” for Butcher. The chances are that, had Fenlon remained in charge, Hibs would probably have finished somewhere between fifth and seventh this season. Butcher, however, was brought in with the intention of ultimately restoring Hibs to the upper echelons of the division Aberdeen-style, and that was always going to take more than just a few tweaks.
Fenlon had assembled a team suited to a more patient, probing passing game, based on seizing control in midfield, which wasn’t to the majority of fans’ liking. Butcher, by contrast, prefers a higher-tempo, more direct approach, so as well as restoring confidence and morale, he also had to implement a significant change in style, which was never going to be straightforward with a group of players of whom the majority were signed with a view to playing Fenlon’s way.
After the early buoyancy teams often get simply from the presence of a new manager – Hibs lost only one of Butcher’s first nine games – there was always a likelihood that things would tail off until he was able to augment a decent squad with the type of players needed to hoist them into contention for a top-four place. The same thing happened at Dundee United last year, when Jackie McNamara, who is now doing pretty well, won three of his first four games in charge before winning only three of his next 16. Like McNamara, Butcher is also experimenting with talented but unproven youngsters like Jason Cummings and Sammy Stanton. This increases the likelihood of teething problems.
Unless a team is at rock-bottom, as Hibs were when Fenlon replaced Colin Calderwood a little over two years ago, it invariably takes time for any sustained upturn under new management to unfold. Hibs fans will probably have to wait until next season to see the true fruits of Butcher’s work.