New personnel, new ideas, new division, same old sense of exasperation ...
It seems that whatever Hibs do these days, they are unable to escape the gloom which has clung to the club – give or take the odd high point – ever since Tony Mowbray departed for West Brom eight years ago.
Leeann Dempster is less than five months into her all-encompassing mission to galvanise the club and already the highly-regarded chief executive has felt compelled to log on to online fans forum Hibs.net and ask for patience from the naysayers among the support who, in her words, have created “constant negativity” around the club. After each slip-up against less-illustrious opponents, Alan Stubbs, the head coach, has to deal with being asked why his side are making such heavy weather of life in the Championship compared to city rivals Hearts.
It is really pretty obvious, however. The main reason that both Dempster and Stubbs have endured such a torrid start to their respective tenures is that they walked into a club in utter disarray and low on self-esteem.
Hearts, despite having endured the trauma of dicing with extinction over the past two years, were in a far stronger position than Hibs by the time the two clubs were relegated in May. Hearts were debt-free and relishing their Championship adventure under a new regime which had been planning for life in the second tier for the best part of a year. They had been busy plotting exciting new signings long before Hibs had even been consigned to the Championship, and fans, buoyed by the club’s emergence from administration and a rousing finish to last season, had snapped up season tickets en masse. Crucially, the fanbase were united and excited.
By contrast, Hibs’ shock relegation left them in an abysmal predicament, changing managers, trying to empty out every senior player they could and battling to keep angry fans at bay as they campaigned for the removal of chairman Rod Petrie. Against such rancour and upheaval, a harmonious start to the current season was never likely. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Hearts have looked far more sure-footed than Hibs in the first quarter.
As well as still being a work in progress on the pitch, Hibs are having to contend with a support riven by factions. The mood around the club is not conducive to a new team finding its feet together and flourishing consistently on the park. Hibs, their new head coach and their new players, haven’t had the benefit that comes with being backed by fired-up, sell-out crowds, as their city rivals have. Anger remains among many who still turn up, while others have grown apathetic and now stay away. The whole situation is something of a vicious circle, where the mood won’t change unless the team can somehow rise above the sense of unease and start winning consistently. The irony is that, despite their lack of victories so far, Hibs are actually playing some decent football under Stubbs, arguably their best since John Hughes was in charge. They have assembled a reasonably exciting young squad which, with confidence and support, has the potential to flourish. Yet because they are not scoring many goals, Stubbs and his team are having to put up with sentiments along the lines of “same old, same old...”
On the field, they look only a prolific goal-scorer away from coming good. Jason Cummings is still only 19 and adapting to regular first-team football. Similarly, Dominique Malonga, for all his early promise, is not yet fully fit and is also getting used to the Scottish game.
With Farid El Alagui sidelined long term, Hibs have no striker they can hang their hat on. If they had someone like Leigh Griffiths, whom they tried to sign on loan, they would probably have won several more points and the familiar frustrations of recent seasons wouldn’t have resurfaced in the aftermath of back-to-back home draws against Raith Rovers and Dumbarton.
Dempster’s annoyance at supporters’ “negativity” is understandable, given that she is clearly trying to implement a plan which ensures the long-term prosperity of the club regardless of whether promotion is won this season.
By the same token, however, it is easy to sympathise with Hibs supporters who feel the fact their club is even in the Championship is an affront. It’s all very well asking fans to keep the faith and not to “lash out”, but that is easier said than done when they are paying good money to watch one of the biggest clubs in the country toil against the likes of Alloa, Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton.
The fact Hearts are making light work of it is merely exacerbating frustration levels at Hibs. The Tynecastle club responded with unity and defiance when they plummeted out of the top flight; Hibs, understandably given the circumstances, became deflated and fragmented.
Dempster, Stubbs and others at Easter Road are working diligently to try and pick up the pieces, but, with so much lingering acrimony, Hibs were never going to suddenly be transformed into a durable Championship match-winning machine. They have the right people in place, but the rebuild will require time and tolerance.