Hibs will be playing Championship football next season for one simple reason, they are not good enough for the Scottish Premiership.
A “car crash” of a season had left the Easter Road club sinking like a stone, Terry Butcher’s side unable to take the numerous lifelines thrown to them, not even holding a two-goal lead from the first leg of the play-off final.
In any other year the Capital outfit would have been relegated outright given their atrocious form since the turn of the year, just one of 18 league games won, the 15-point deduction with which city neighbours Hearts were hit after plunging into administration giving them this second chance to survive.
But even this safety net wasn’t enough, Hibs somehow managing to fall through it despite those two goals from Jason Cummings a few days earlier which appeared to have more or less let them escape the drop by the skin of their teeth.
Few believed Hamilton Accies boss Alex Neil and his players when they insisted defeat at their New Douglas Park didn’t signal the end for them. Butcher did, warning his players they still had work to do. However, it appeared to have fallen on deaf ears.
From virtually the first minute to the last of the 120 played Accies bossed the match, knocking the ball about in style while Hibs struggled, displaying a frightening lack of composure, an inability to retain possession and the players guilty of repeatedly firing aimless balls forward only for Hamilton to come at them time and again.
It was a depressingly familiar pattern, one which has been evident on too many occasions over the past three or four months and one which had prompted Butcher to promise a radical overhaul of his squad over the next few weeks.
That task, though, has become all the more difficult, the financial implications of going down – and with no guarantee of coming straight back up unlike the last time such ignominy was visited on Hibs – yet to be assessed at a club which is expected to post a hefty loss for the current financial year.
Relegation is most likely to see those players out of contract released as the quickest way to cut costs, the problem then being for Butcher to attract replacements who can at least make a genuine bid for an immediate return. Or will it be Butcher? The big Englishman insisted he wants to remain as manager although an angry demonstration outside demanded both his head and that of chairman Rod Petrie. Challenged as what he meant when he said: “If I am still in charge next year,” he replied: “If it’s down to me I will be here, I want to continue to be able to restructure the club the right way.
“A few minutes after being relegated it’s hard to say exactly what you want to do but if I am allowed to we will sit down and look at a way forward.
“There was going to be a restructuring if we stayed up but we have been relegated, a lot of things change. It was going to be a big rebuild, now it’s going to be an even more massive one.
“I think this club has been in the doldrums for quite some time but there’s lots of things we could do. I would like to have that opportunity, but I think that situation is out of my hands now.”
Rumours had flown around Easter Road prior to kick-off that Butcher would quit regardless of the outcome, gossip which he dismissed at totally untrue but in accepting responsibility as manager for such a mediocre run of results, he acknowledged part of the restructuring which will take place could well include himself.
He said: “I am the manager of the football club and I have had plenty of opportunities to stop the slide, to have won football matches. That’s my job and I have not done that enough, I accept the responsibility because I have had opportunities to make sure we were safe.
“We were going for top six a few months ago and we could not win games after that to ensure that we did not get in to this position.”
That said, Butcher, despite his misgivings as to Accies’ ability to turn the play-off around, must have been quietly confident that his players would finally grasp the reality of the situation and be resolute and determined enough to see off the visitors. Yet again, though, he and a bumper Easter Road crowd – bar the 900 or so Hamilton fans – were let down big time.
Ryan McGivern’s slack pass gifted Accies the early goal they desired, turning the afternoon into a nail-biting, nervous affair for the home support with Alex Neil’s side looking more likely to add to Jason Scotland’s opener than Hibs were to draw level on the day – in fact their only effort on target in the entire game was a Cummings header taken off his own line by Jon Routledge.
Two great saves from goalkeeper Ben Williams and a couple of superbly timed challenges from McGivern in the face of the onslaught looked as if they might, just might be enough to see Hibs over the line, a thought shared by Butcher who said: “I was thinking ‘we will take a 1-0 defeat, that means we stay up’.”
But with 75 seconds remaining Scotland’s cutback found Tony Andreu in space and he guided the ball beyond Williams, forcing extra-time which couldn’t separate the sides – leaving them to a penalty shoot-out.
Butcher said: “Hamilton came with a game plan and it worked for them. For some reason we just sat off the game, we didn’t get tight to them, press them as we had last Wednesday. We allowed them to play, to dictate the pace of the game, they dictated a lot of things.
“I don’t understand why we did that.”
Penalties represented one final chance but, again Hibs blew it. First up Kevin Thomson saw his effort saved and while team-mates Ryan McGivern, Liam Craig and Owain Tudur Jones all converted, so, too, did Accies Grant Gillespie, Andreu, Mickael Antoine-Curier and Scotland, leaving the hero of the other night, Cummings, to ensure Hamilton’s last effort would have to count.
But the 18-year-old was left in tears – along with many Hibs fans as Kevin Cuthbert saved his tame effort, the ecstasy of the goalkeeper and his team-mates in stark contrast to the agony ingrained on the faces of those in green and white.
While it all came down to this match the harm, as Butcher admitted was self-inflicted over a much longer period. He said: “It’s a horrible, horrible feeling. It’s been like watching a car crash the last two or three months.
“You do everything you can to stop it but you just cannot, you just can’t halt the slide, you can’t halt the losses. There’s many reasons why, conceding goals easily, not scoring goals, getting players sent off, conceding penalties – you can go through the whole lot. It’s not just this one game, it’s the whole season and particularly the time I have been in charge.”
As Butcher tacitly admitted, that’s a record that will come under scrutiny as those in the boardroom ponder whether he’s the man who can oversee not only a determined bid for promotion – not easy when you consider the likes of Rangers and Hearts will be just two of the clubs providing the competition – but someone who can, from the ruins, rebuild Hibs into a stronger club.