A MONTH ago Maurice Malpas was simply doing his job when he sent the Hibs support home from Easter Road with their faces tripping them. On Saturday, it’s up to him and boss Terry Butcher to ensure that they are sporting huge grins when they leave.
Provided he remembers to turn right rather than left at the end of the tunnel, Malpas will find himself in the home dug-out rather than the away one which he occupied that day as caretaker manager of Inverness Caley Thistle while Butcher sat in the stand high above him contemplating his future and taking no part in the events of the day.
In a somewhat surreal scenario both Hibs and Caley found themselves in a state of flux, the Capital club seeking a new manager to replace Pat Fenlon and believing Butcher was their man while Inverness were fighting tooth-and-nail to keep the big Englishman in the Highlands but conscious of the fact they were losing the battle.
As such, Malpas and Jimmy Nicholl found themselves in no-man’s land, taking charge of their respective clubs unsure of what the future held but with the immediate task of thrusting all the off-field distractions to one side to concentrate on snaring the three points.
Malpas it was who came out on top, early goals from Nicky Ross and Billy McKay meaning the result was never in doubt, another defeat compounding the misery for a dispirited Hibs support.
That was then, though, and now is now. Reunited with Butcher as the new management team at Easter Road, the pair approach their first home match – some three-and-a-half weeks after being appointed – against Partick Thistle seeking to build on the momentum gained in their opening two games, a goal-less draw away to St Mirren followed by a first ever win over Ross County, which propelled them into the fifth round of the Scottish Cup.
“Jimmy and I had a strange conversation before the Hibs-Caley match,” revealed Malpas, “asking each other ‘how has your week been?’. To be honest, the week leading up to it was chaotic. Stressful is the wrong word, but it was abnormal for me. I was used to Terry sitting across the desk from me but that wasn’t the case that week.
“He had come and spoken to the chairman here, they were still negotiating and I was left to take the helm at Inverness where I knew what was going to happen, what could happen, but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. It was all pie-in-the-sky for me.
“My biggest fear gong into the game was that the players did not have their eye on the ball and were beaten because of attitude and that’s a no-no for us. But to be fair, the players were spot on, scoring early helped and it was comfortable. It was my job at the time. It was a difficult situation to be in but you go onto automatic pilot and get engrossed in the game.”
Malpas readily admits that when he and Butcher first set foot inside Hibs’ training complex at East Mains they had a preconception of the task facing them which, to their relief, hasn’t proved as onerous as they feared. He said: “I think the impression we got looking from afar and possibly the last game when I was at Caley gave us concern about their attitude and fitness.
“I think that was dispelled in the first week of training. The first morning they were nervous and I can understand that but the second day, once we got in amongst them, got a bit of banter going, a lot of those perceptions just disappeared and their attitude in the two games has been spot on.
“We have asked them to train in the manner we have always done. We try to train how we play and they have lapped it up.”
Malpas believes the preconception which he and Butcher shared was probably based on a combination of being a false impression and a lack of confidence within the squad they’d inherited. He said: “I perhaps picked the wrong games to come and see Hibs. I was at the Malmo game, the Partick match which they won but didn’t play particularly well, and, of course, the couple of times they’d played Caley.
“That was how we had built up our picture but after the first couple of days our picture wasn’t fuzzy, it just was not there at all. You have to give the boys credit, but I also have to admit there was a bit of relief from our point-of-view.”
Malpas insisted there’s no great secret to the transformation which he and Butcher have wrought in such a short space of time, simply a high-tempo game, a strong work ethic and the onus put on having the ball in and around the opposition penalty area as often as possible.
He said: “We were concerned that one or two would not want to come with us in terms of how we train and how we play, how we go about our business. First and foremost they have to work hard. Even when you are having a complete disaster of a game you still have to be giving your team something.
“We have asked them to work their tails off and if you do that you have a chance, your ability will show eventually. In the two games so far their attitude has been spot on, their fitness has been excellent. Up in Dingwall and down to ten men they still had plenty of legs in them and that’s a massive plus for us.
“We don’t train particularly long but we do train at a high tempo and play at a high tempo. It’s a mental thing. I am sure a lot of guys do not want to play that way but that’s the way we play – for 90 minutes. We’ve been pleasantly surprised they’ve all come on board, they have all wanted to do it.
“Sometimes it’s complete graft that gets you a win, sometimes it will be the ability to play exciting football in terms of plenty of goal-scoring opportunities. It’s all about winning games. How do you win games? You need to get the ball into their box, create chances, get attempts on goal.
“You can make 35 passes in your own box but that does not get you anything. It’s about playing in the other team’s box and scoring goals, which is the hardest thing to do. For me, the most exciting thing watching a game is the number of chances you create – a wee stramash in the box, stuff like that – so hopefully the fans will enjoy coming to watch us.
“There will be days when we can’t kick our backsides, but as long as we are working hard we’ll still have a chance of creating chances and getting a result.”
While Hibs have been backed by large travelling supports in both Paisley and Dingwall, Malpas admitted it was now up to the players to reproduce such performances in their own stadium. He said: “The fans judge you on how you play at home, they come along to their own stadium and want to see their team do well.
“I think if you look at the records, 99.99 per cent of the teams that are successful are successful because of their home form. There’s not a lot of teams who consistently play well away from home and win, and poorly at home and lose, who do that well. The onus on us changes slightly on Saturday in that we have to be dominating the game or dictating how it is played. We want Easter Road to be a noisy stadium. The fans have been great in the two away games and I am sure they will back us.
“But at ten to five on Saturday they’ll only be interested in whether it’s three points or whatever.”