Analysis: Decline of Hearts and Hibs must be reversed to avoid relegation battle between clubs

Capital gains over recent years must be recouped

Thursday, 7th November 2019, 6:00 am
Craig Levein and Paul Heckingbottom paid the price for poor results
Craig Levein and Paul Heckingbottom paid the price for poor results

There was a period not so long ago, in the years immediately following their simultaneous relegation from the top flight in 2014, when Hearts and Hibs were viewed as model football clubs, showing everyone else how it should be done.

Led, respectively, by Ann Budge and Leeann Dempster, the pre-eminent women of Scottish football, Edinburgh’s two principal clubs were being widely hailed for the effective and exciting manner in which they had set about rebuilding in the Scottish Championship as they re-engaged and re-energised supporters who had become ground down by the respective struggles of their teams in the grim years prior to their dual demotion five and a half years ago.

Upon returning to the Premiership – albeit two years later than hoped for in Hibs’ case – both clubs finished comfortably in the top four in their first season back and looked equipped to re-establish themselves at the top end of Scottish football for the foreseeable future the way Aberdeen, a similar-sized club, have done ever since Derek McInnes hauled them from their own bottom-six drudgery.

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It hasn’t transpired this way, however, with both Capital clubs now finding themselves in a similarly grim predicament, staring at the very real possibility that they could become embroiled in another relegation battle – perhaps even with each other – in the months ahead. Having dropped out of the Premiership together in 2013/14, it is notable that these two bitter rivals with top-four aspirations find themselves reunited at danger point in remarkably similar circumstances to each other.

They are in the unusual position of searching for a new manager simultaneously after Craig Levein and Paul Heckingbottom paid the price over the past week for leading the teams back into murky bottom-six waters. Hearts, who languish 11th in the table and level on points with last-placed St Mirren, have won only one of their last 18 league games over the past seven months. Hibs, just a point and a place better off, have won only one of their last 16.

Extending the theme of grim similarity, they are also both licking their wounds after comprehensive three-goal beatings at the hands of Glasgow opposition in last weekend’s Betfred Cup semi-finals, two matches which underlined how diminished the Capital outfits have become. Depending how they fare this weekend, against St Mirren and St Johnstone, Hearts and Hibs are both at risk of spending the November international break in the bottom two. The current situation, with both clubs under caretaker management teams, is in stark contrast to 13 months ago when they spent the October international break in first and second place respectively. The form of both teams over the past year, however – aside from Hibs’ brief spurt in the early months of Heckingbottom’s reign – suggests the early part of last season was something of a freak period when the Edinburgh clubs’ lofty status owed plenty to the relative struggles of Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen at that time. Once those three teams eventually got motoring, they – along with Kilmarnock – had little trouble in leaving the floundering Capital sides in their wake. Hearts finished a grim sixth, while Hibs somehow clawed themselves up to fifth after plunging to eighth place under Neil Lennon midway through the season.

The truth is, however, both clubs’ loss of mojo can be traced back further than October 2018 to a couple of Edinburgh derbies at Tynecastle. In Hearts’ case, the positive vibe that was coursing through the club as they rose from the ashes of administration/relegation effectively became diluted from the moment Hibs defender Paul Hanlon scored a stoppage-time equaliser in a Scottish Cup tie in February 2016. Hibs, having fought back from 2-0 down that day in Gorgie, won the replay and famously went on to lift the Scottish Cup, while Robbie Neilson’s popularity among the Hearts support took a significant hit. Although he continued on for another eight months, maintaining lofty league positions right up to his departure point, the previously harmonious mood around the club had been damaged. Then came the struggles under Ian Cathro and then the underwhelming back-to-back sixth-place finishes under Levein before the poor form which kicked off a year ago continued into the early months of this campaign.

Hibs’ malaise hasn’t lasted as long as that of Hearts, but it has been equally disconcerting for supporters who were previously revelling in their team’s resurgence under Alan Stubbs and then Lennon. The loss of harmony at Easter Road can probably be plotted back to the night at Tynecastle in May 2018 when Hibs’ hopes of finishing second in the Premiership were dashed by a meek 2-1 defeat by Hearts. Afterwards, Lennon embarked on a remarkable rant in which it became apparent that he wasn’t particularly enthused by the prospect of having to rebuild a team which was about to lose key men like John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch, among others. Although he remained in place for the start of the following season, it soon became clear that his spark for the job was no longer there. Ultimately, Lennon was unable to find a solution to the departure of a high-calibre midfield and he eventually left under a cloud in January, paving the way for the ill-fated Heckingbottom appointment. Perhaps one of the most damning aspects of the Yorkshireman’s reign is that he was the only manager to lose a league match to Hearts in the closing six months of Levein’s reign.

In years to come, both clubs will hope the early part of the 2019/20 merely represents the nadir on their post-relegation journey of recovery and not the precursor to another spell in Scottish football’s second tier. The impending managerial appointments on both sides of the city are absolutely critical to ending this period of Capital punishment.