At this time last year Jimmy Nicholl was caretaker manager of Hibs, trying to pick up the pieces after Pat Fenlon’s reign had come to a grisly end.
This weekend, the Northern Irishman will attempt to damage the Easter Road side’s latest revival mission.
As manager of Cowdenbeath, Nicholl is plotting to end Hibs’ five-game unbeaten run in the Championship at Central Park on Saturday. The Easter Road side have been in decent form since they scraped a last-gasp 3-2 victory at home to the Blue Brazil on September 13. However, Nicholl believes there are two distinct versions of his old club. On the one hand, he has been mightily impressed by the swashbuckling away outfit that has put Ross County, Rangers and Livingston to the sword in ruthless fashion over the past six weeks. But he feels they remain a touch vulnerable at Easter Road, where, despite producing some impressive displays against Raith Rovers, Dumbarton, Hearts and Dundee United, they haven’t been able to eke out a victory.
Given their nine-goal haul from their last three away games, Nicholl anticipates a formidable test against Alan Stubbs’ team in Fife on Saturday. “Hibs have been playing really well away from home and Alan will be hoping his team come to Cowdenbeath and get the points,” he told the Evening News. “We know they’re a good team and we know where their threat is but when you go to Ibrox and win 3-1 and then draw your next two home games, it must be frustrating for Alan.
“It’s a terrible thing for managers and players to say they prefer playing away from home, but I think that is the case with a lot of teams these days, and Hibs are probably one of them.
“Managers and players don’t like saying that they’re more comfortable away from, but it is sometimes the case. You don’t go and win at Ibrox and beat good players if you don’t enjoy playing away. Until you get a good run of results at home, that’s what you tend to think.”
Nicholl himself made the point during his five-month spell at Easter Road last year that Hibs’ players appeared to be inhibited by playing at home. Despite their impressive performances against Hearts and Dundee United in their last two home games, he feels they still have a bit of work to do before Easter Road can be considered a fortress. “You don’t know what it is, maybe the away supporters stick with you that bit more,” he mused. “You hate saying it and you hate players thinking it, but the results tend to suggest that at Hibs it has been the case over the past few years.
“This season, for example, after winning 3-1 at Rangers, some fans will have expected them to be 2-0 up after half an hour in their next home game [against Raith Rovers]. If that doesn’t happen, all of a sudden a bit of pressure and anxiety can get into the players. Some players can handle the situation, others can’t.”
Nicholl feels Hibs’ lack of home victories – they have won only two of their six league games at Easter Road – must be addressed if they are to haul themselves back into title contention. “If Hibs get their home form sorted out, they’ll be contenders, but they can’t afford to drop points at home and just rely on away performances to get them points all the time,” he said.
Nicholl’s time at Easter Road was short and not particularly sweet. It began with a 9-0 aggregate defeat at the hands of Malmo in the Europa League in the summer of 2013 and ended last November with back-to-back defeats in a stint as caretaker manager while the club lined up Terry Butcher as Fenlon’s replacement.
The 58-year-old remains disappointed by the way things panned out for Fenlon, who was unable to shake off the lingering discontent from the 5-1 Scottish Cup final defeat by Hearts over a year previously. “I really enjoyed my experience at Hibs,” he said. “I enjoyed working with Pat. What happened in the end was disappointing, but he just got to the stage where he thought ‘it doesn’t matter what I do here, it’s not going to happen for me’.
“He could probably have won 12 games in a row and still not been accepted. Once you feel like that, it’s time to go. It was disappointing because it really meant a lot to him. It was a matter of professional pride in the end. It must be a terrible feeling when it gets like that.”
In the end, Hibs were relegated as Butcher found the going even tougher than Fenlon had. Stubbs is currently making an admirable fist of getting things back on track in what Nicholl feels is still one of the most demanding gigs in Scottish football. “Hibs were mid-table when Pat decided to go,” he recalls. “The Malmo thing was horrific because we had to try and pick the boys up after that and the focus was on sorting the team out so they didn’t concede goals. We started picking things up and then the Hearts game [a 1-0 home defeat] in the League Cup did Pat in.
“I had a couple of games as caretaker, which was difficult. It’s a difficult job for whoever’s in charge and whatever squad of players is in there. It really is difficult. There are big expectations there – at Hibs you need a mixture of experienced players who can handle situations as well as young players who can play without fear. It takes a certain type of player to deal with playing for Hibs.”
Cowdenbeath are bottom of the Championship, but have already proven a pesky opponent for Hibs after they led that September showdown at Easter Road 2-1 with just 12 minutes left before succumbing to defeat in stoppage time. Despite failing to land a significant blow against Hibs, Hearts or Rangers, Nicholl has been buoyed by his part-time team’s efforts against the big three of the second tier this season.
“At Easter Road, we were 1-0 down, changed things to go 2-1 up and then lost a couple of late goals,” he said. “We were 1-1 at half-time at Tynecastle the following week before losing 5-1. Then on Wednesday we were 1-0 down at home to Rangers after five minutes but looked really strong and could have been level at half-time. Every game against the big boys we’ve had something positive to take.”