Two months ago, Rod Petrie, the ever-embattled Hibs chairman, spoke of his desire to become anonymous in the eyes of his public.
“If no one is talking about me, then things are going well. The objective is to be invisible,” he said on the day that Terry Butcher was unveiled as Hibs’ latest new manager. So far, so good on that front, with the feelgood factor generated by the Englishman’s mini-revival serving to take the heat off a man who has been widely pilloried and at times even ridiculed at various junctures of his “steady Eddie” stewardship of the Easter Road club.
Too often he has been cast, unfairly, as the Hibs scapegoat for disappointing results on the pitch when all he has been guilty of is safeguarding the future of the club he loves, while simultaneously laying the foundations for Hibs to flourish as their rivals flounder.
The main charges against him are that he has been overly frugal to the detriment of the team and also that he has overseen what many believe to have been an obscene amount of managerial changes, with the insinuation being either that he’s unable to pick good managers or that he is an ogre who drives them away.
But, at a time when others in Scotland were wildly overspending, Petrie kept things sensible, refusing to push the boat out on signing fancy new faces despite coining in millions from the sales of an exceptional raft of homegrown talent in the mid-Noughties. Instead, Hibs focused on long-term prosperity rather than a short-term fix, opening one of the finest training grounds in the country and then turning Easter Road into arguably Scotland’s best football stadium outside Glasgow. Although the lion’s share of their transfer windfall was spent on such ventures, Petrie still allowed every manager to bring in players of a decent pedigree for a club of Hibs’ standing.
Derek Riordan, Ian Murray, Anthony Stokes, Jonatan Johansson, Liam Miller, Junior Agogo, Garry O’Connor, Liam Craig, Scott Robertson and James Collins were among those brought to Hibs over the past six years who wouldn’t have been lured in return for shirt buttons. They may not be box-office top-enders, but, in the barren landscape that is Scottish football, it would have been negligent to splash cash willy-nilly with no likelihood of regular Champions League group-stage qualification to justify it.
The managerial situation remains a big stick to beat Petrie with, but it shouldn’t be. Appointing a manager to one of Scotland’s traditional bigger clubs is a far riskier business than for smaller clubs, as evidenced by Mark McGhee and Craig Brown both excelling at Motherwell, then subsequently toiling at Aberdeen. Apart from the most successful manager of Petrie’s tenure, Tony Mowbray, every boss in recent times had a decent track record or a profile which made them look a good fit for the job.
In an era where boardroom panic often leads to premature sackings, Petrie has generally given his managers every chance to succeed. John Collins and John Hughes might disagree, but it wasn’t Petrie’s fault that the players turned against the former, while the latter remained in a job long after the first howls of derision had begun emanating from the stands.
When Pat Fenlon left, the critics wondered which manager worth their salt would want to work under the much-maligned Petrie. In fairness, though, there aren’t many Scottish Premiership-standard managers who wouldn’t be tempted by the prospect of working for a chairman who all but guarantees time to stamp your mark on the team, support in the transfer market and full autonomy over team affairs.
“Working with Rod Petrie was enjoyable. People say he is a monster, but he is a fantastic person,” Mixu Paatelainen, one of those managers perceived to have been scared off by Petrie, told me a year after leaving Hibs.
The chairman would have been entitled to feel a sense of vindication at the end of the last match at Easter Road, where he and his fellow boardroom members embraced euphorically as a sell-out crowd saw a Hibs side containing four homegrown players seize derby bragging rights from Hearts for the foreseeable future.