Hibs 2014: From depths of despair to renewed hope

Scott Robertson (No.8), below, 'celebrates his goal which helped beat Rangers 4-0 on Saturday, while, below, he stands alongside Kevin Thomson in shock as Hibs needed to win a penalty shoot-out to stay up ' and failed.
Scott Robertson (No.8), below, 'celebrates his goal which helped beat Rangers 4-0 on Saturday, while, below, he stands alongside Kevin Thomson in shock as Hibs needed to win a penalty shoot-out to stay up ' and failed.
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And so Hibs end 2014 just as they entered the year, enjoying a run of three successive victories, Saturday’s emphatic win over Rangers bringing just as much enjoyment to their fans as seeing Liam Craig’s late penalty sink their “First Foots” and Capital rivals Hearts way back in January.

If only the intervening period had brought half as much pleasure, the past 12 months having gone down as the most distressing time in the club’s history since the dark days of Wallace Mercer’s “merger” bid and the subsequent threat of liquidation.

Sure, the Easter Road club had endured the ignominy of relegation in the recent past, but the events of season 1997/98 paled in comparison with the traumas the Hibs support had to suffer in the first half of this year just ending.

No way could those jubilant fans have foreseen what lay ahead as they trooped out of Easter Road that night on January 2, Craig’s spot-kick sealing a memorable Festive period in which Kilmarnock and Ross County – for so long Hibs’ bogey team – had also been put to the sword.

Those victories lifted Hibs into sixth place in the Premiership table, the upper half of Scotland’s top flight having become unfamiliar territory to the Edinburgh club in the previous couple of seasons and also appearing to confirm that, under new boss Terry Butcher, they were indeed headed in the right direction.

The affable big Englishman, a popular choice as successor to Pat Fenlon after the Irishman quit as manager claiming he had taken Hibs as far as he could only a couple of days after crashing out of the League Cup at the hands of Hearts, had overseen, it has to be said, a less than impressive start at Easter Road following his move from Inverness Caley although there had been that historic first win over Ross County in the Scottish Cup last November in only his second game in charge.

But by beating Killie, the Staggies and Hearts in the space of just eight days the former England captain appeared to signal that he and his assistant Maurice Malpas had got to grips with things, encouraging plenty of optimism not just for the remainder of the season but in the longer-term.

Little were we to know that Hibs would win just one more match, again against Ross County, as the club went into freefall and it became apparent everything was not rosy behind the scenes.

In popular parlance, and for whatever reason, Butcher “lost” a number of senior players, most notably ex-skipper James McPake and the experienced Kevin Thomson.

Having been sidelined with a back injury, McPake found himself totally overlooked as Hibs stumbled downwards despite insisting he was fit and ready to play, a contention which would appear to be supported by the fact he has played all but one of Dundee’s league matches this season.

Thomson, also at Dens Park today having become one of 15 players to be axed at the end of the 2013/14 season, became a peripheral figure, starting just four matches between early November and late May as the season unravelled. Butcher also appeared to blow hot and cold over the likes of Craig, Tom Taiwo, Paul Cairney, Alex Harris and others who suddenly found themselves in and out of the side.

To be fair to Butcher, he inherited a pretty unbalanced squad, one heavily weighted by central defenders: Craig, Thomson, Scott Robertson, Owain Tudur Jones, Taiwo; and also a lightweight strikeforce with James Collins failing to recapture the form which had persuaded Fenlon to splash out £200,000 on the Swindon Town striker.

Fenlon had also failed to address the crying need for a right back, the veteran Alan Maybury playing more often than he would have expected while both Lewis Stevenson and Jordon Forster were pressed into service in that unfamiliar role.

And then Butcher’s January transfer signings, Duncan Watmore on loan from Sunderland, Danny Haynes on a loan deal from Notts County and Daniel Boateng on loan from Arsenal, all failed to make an impression.

A Scottish Cup exit at home to Raith Rovers served only to highlight the fears which were beginning to swirl around Easter Road as early as February as the points began to dry up, a pivotal moment coming on March 8 when, having fought back from two goals down to lead Motherwell 3-2, Butcher’s players conceded a last minute equaliser to John Sutton.

A win that day would have put them ten points clear of second bottom Ross County with only five matches remaining before the split. Instead, pressure continued to mount on Hibs as those below them began to claw their way closer and closer.

Even going into the last five games Hibs were in seventh place, four points ahead of Partick Thistle who were now occupying the play-off spot, and knowing just one win might be enough to lift them clear of trouble.

Instead, Hibs could muster just one point from those remaining five games, Kris Boyd’s strike for Kilmarnock in the last of them consigning Hibs to a two-legged play-off with the Championship’s second team, Hamilton.

The events of those few days need no going over, the pain is still too raw for many to take today some seven months on, relegation having provoked the predictable but inevitable protests and demands that chairman Rod Petrie, his fellow directors, Butcher and Malpas go.

Butcher and Malpas did so after meeting new chief executive Leeann Dempster who had been recruited from Motherwell before the club was gripped by crisis, as did the vast bulk of the squad. Those out-of-contract were immediately released while Collins, Ryan McGivern and Michael Nelson later negotiated their departures.

The extent of the rebuild necessary was spotlighted by the fact that the remaining players numbered just nine when they reported back for pre-season training with new boss Alan Stubbs, handed the title of head coach rather than manager, yet to be put in place.

Stubbs’ appointment met a mixed reception. He had enjoyed an impressive playing career with, among others, Celtic, and built a reputation as a youth coach with Everton but he was untested in management at first-team level. However, his cv very much mirrored that of Tony Mowbray, who had been appointed ten years earlier.

What Mowbray didn’t have to deal with, though, was a level of discontent, a clamour for change and the need to quickly put together a squad capable of mounting a challenge for promotion first time round.

Early results didn’t carry much promise and the sight of Hearts almost disappearing over the horizon at the top of the Championship only fomented further anger.

Stubbs, however, refused to panic, remaining adamant things would improve as the season went on. And his stance has been vindicated in recent weeks as his players have been credited not only with playing the sort of football Hibs fans want to see, but doing so and picking up results. The likes of Craig and Robertson have been rejuvenated while Stubbs has proved to be a shrewd operator, bringing in Scott Allan, pictured below – the Championship’s player of the season at this stage – David Gray, Mark Oxley, Liam Fontaine, Farid El Alagui, Dominique Malonga and Dylan McGeouch, all to great effect.

Behind the scenes a formidable football department has been built, offering Stubbs all the support he could wish for while, as we learned only a couple of days ago, moves were put in place almost a year ago to give the supporters what they’ve been clamouring for in recent months – a greater say in their club. Now free of debt to the bank, with fans being offered the chance to own 51 per cent of the club and all the money from the £2.5 million share flotation going straight into club accounts, allied to rapidly improving results and performances, Hibs can, surely, enter 2015 in a more positive mood than seemed possible during the summer.