Last summer – prior to the 7-0 Malmo mauling, obviously – Hibs were widely tipped to kick on from their comfortable seventh-place finish the previous season and re-establish themselves in the top six of the Scottish Premiership.
After overcoming a mini-Malmo hangover and embarking on a run which saw them collect 15 points from eight games to move up to fifth by mid-October, things looked pretty rosy at Easter Road.
Even when they fell off the horse again and lost at home to Hearts in the League Cup, resulting in the exit of manager Pat Fenlon, the much-vaunted Terry Butcher rocked up at Easter Road in early November and was enthused by the foundations in place and the quality of player at his disposal. The feelgood factor generated by the Englishman’s arrival should have been enough to propel Hibs back into the top six at least. Indeed, when they beat Hearts on January 2 – their third win on the spin – to sit in sixth place, they looked primed to go in pursuit of Dundee United and Inverness, who were, respectively, just five and six points ahead of them.
So how, four months down the line, have Hibs ended up spending Scottish Cup final build-up week – a frenzied and exciting time for the club in the previous two years – in such a state of utter turmoil, sweating over the prospect of a two-legged play-off against a buoyant Championship side to save their Premiership skin?
Butcher, below, and his players are big enough and honest enough to admit they have been prominent in an almighty botch job as the club has freefalled towards the Championship ever since drawing 2-2 away to Dundee United after squandering a 2-0 lead in the last seven minutes in early January.
However, it would be negligent in the analysis of their demise not to note that the manager and most of his players have proved themselves to be decent operators at other clubs in the past, while most of them had good moments at Hibs as recently as the winter.
Although it seems to be the popular train of thought among Scottish football’s observers to write off everyone aboard the green-and-white sinking ship as a bunch of gutless, hapless incompetents, that is not necessarily the case. Take James Collins, for example. This is a striker who has been widely ridiculed after toiling to set the heather alight since Fenlon reportedly shelled out a six-figure fee for him last summer.
Yet Collins played in the same Swindon Town team as Adam Rooney and outscored the current Aberdeen forward 18-10 last season. His erosion of confidence, particularly since the goals dried up entirely in January, has typified the frailty that has led Hibs into a tailspin.
Back in the autumn, Collins and Paul Heffernan looked like they might be about to strike up a fruitful alliance, when they hit five goals between them in the space of five games, but mainly due to the latter’s injury problems, they haven’t had a chance to develop their partnership.
Throughout the season, Collins has found himself up front on his own, on the bench or operating alongside either Danny Handling or Jason Cummings, two youngsters still battling to find their way in the first team.
Such lack of continuity in Hibs’ team selection has surely been a significant factor in their struggles. It is no coincidence that their only two decent form bursts – in the autumn under Fenlon and in the immediate aftermath of Butcher’s arrival – came when the managers were able to name settled sides. Since the turn of the year, Hibs have been ravaged by injuries to key men. The most significant absence has been that of Paul Hanlon, who had emerged as their best defender prior to suffering injury two months ago. His presence has been sorely missed, leaving the 34-year-old Michael Nelson to try and hold things together at the back.
In addition, the loss of Scott Robertson in February for the best part of three months, at a time when Tom Taiwo and Kevin Thomson had fallen out of favour under Butcher, didn’t do the side any favours. Had Hanlon, Thomson, Robertson and Heffernan – four of Hibs’ most important players when operating at their best – not spent so much time on the sidelines, they would surely have been safe by now.
As a result of injuries, Butcher has had to rely heavily on academy graduates, but, as Hearts will testify, the heat of a relegation battle is not the best environment for young boys to prosper. The lack of a natural foraging right-back has also hindered Hibs. Jordon Forster and Alan Maybury have filled in well, but, although the departures of Fraser Mullen and Tim Clancy barely raised an eyebrow at the time, with hindsight, they might have been better off holding on to one of the full-backs a while longer.
The first indication that Hibs’ league campaign might be doomed came on the opening day when Alex Harris, the bright young hope of Easter Road, suffered serious injury. Their wretched run of misfortune since then was typified by Forster’s equaliser that was wrongly chalked off against Hearts in March. Had that goal stood, it might just have been enough to stop the rot before it reached this critical stage.
While Hibs’ players and management must shoulder the bulk of the blame for their grisly predicament, there have been no shortage of mitigating factors along the way.