When Pat Fenlon was coming under pressure at the start of the season, the general consensus among the former Hibs manager’s critics was that he wasn’t getting the best out of a squad that, on paper at least, appeared to be among the strongest in the Premiership.
Yet, now, with the Easter Road side enduring a wretched run of form and still seventh in the league – the position Fenlon left them in at the end of October – that same group of players are being portrayed as the problem, with the bulk of them being called into question and, in some cases, written off as not good enough as Hibs flounder under Terry Butcher.
So, what’s it to be? They can’t have gone from being one of the stronger teams in the league personnel-wise to being one of the division’s most dysfunctional squads in a matter of months. The answer is probably somewhere in between.
Regardless of their recent toils under Butcher, it would be harsh to suggest that Liam Craig, Scott Robertson, Ben Williams, Paul Cairney, Paul Hanlon, Michael Nelson and Ryan McGivern are not decent Scottish Premiership-standard footballers. This group have all, to varying degrees, produced the goods previously, either at Hibs or at other clubs in the league.
If the current Hibs squad is dismantled in the summer, the chances are most of these players would flourish elsewhere, as John Rankin, who toiled to set the heather alight at Easter Road, has at Dundee United.
So why are the current squad toiling to cut the mustard at Hibs? Maurice Malpas, Hibs’ assistant manager, had a good crack at identifying the problem last week. Speaking to me in his office at East Mains ahead of the trip to Inverness, the former Scotland internationalist explained: “Technically and physically they are good enough, but it’s the mental side we need to work on. The big thing with me and Terry is that we’re really strong mentally and sometimes we take it for granted that the players will be the same as us, but obviously that isn’t the case.”
Of course, players with the mentality required to play over 50 games for England or Scotland, as Butcher and Malpas did, are hard to find, especially in the Scottish Premiership. Due to finances, most clubs in Scotland have to get by with players who have a decent amount of talent but generally don’t have the all-round attributes required to go to the top level of the game. Pressure, expectation and scrutiny levels are also relatively low in front of crowds that barely hit 5000.
Hibs, Aberdeen and Hearts are slightly different because they are still regarded as big clubs, certainly in Scotland. While Celtic and Rangers have been able to splash out on players with the mental strength to play in front of crowds of 50,000, Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen have had to find players on a relative shoestring with the qualities needed to live up to the club’s expectations. These three clubs can usually be relied upon to attract over 10,000 people, and that in itself brings additional pressure that players who have shone at St Johnstone, Dundee United and Inverness might never have had to deal with before.
Recent history suggests finding players with the required mental fortitude is a genuine issue at Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen. Hearts have done pretty well at overcoming it – albeit with the aid of Vladimir Romanov’s largesse – as, until the past two seasons, they have always been well-stocked with experienced players. For players like Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas and Bruno Aguiar, playing at Tynecastle was a relative stroll in the park.
Aberdeen, until this season, had been in an equally poor predicament to Hibs, struggling to unearth the type of players required to meet supporters’ lofty expectations. Make no mistake, playing scintillating football in front of 12,000 people and winning more weeks than not will not be easy for journeyman footballers on £1500 a week.
The Dons seem to have found the right type this season, but men like Willo Flood, Niall McGinn and Barry Robson, who have played for the Old Firm and still have plenty left to offer, are not easy to come by.
Butcher and Malpas have proved their worth in terms of signing players for smaller clubs like Motherwell and Inverness and then watching them flourish. Trying to source the type of characters required to cope with the demands of excelling at Hibs will be a different task altogether.