Why Hibs have some very large shoes to fill after Graeme Mathie's departure
Hibs released a statement on their website confirming what had already become common knowledge in Scottish football circles: the sporting director was leaving his position after seven years in Leith. And... that was it.
For a club who’ve overhauled their social media strategy and been increasingly active in their pursuit of connecting with supporters through the likes of Twitter and Instagram, it was surprising that Mathie’s services weren’t highlighted in bombastic fashion similar to the tweets which continue to celebrate, for example, John McGinn’s accomplishments three years after his move to Aston Villa.
It may not seem a worthy comparison. After all, McGinn is one of the greatest Hibees of his generation and will forever be remembered as a club legend for his part in the 2016 Scottish Cup win. The talent on the park will always takes the accolades instead of those buzzing away behind the scenes, but it doesn’t mean Mathie’s impact was any less significant.
Hibs were revolutionised across his time at the club. He was initially brought in during the summer of 2014 to work underneath former chief executive Leeann Dempster and head of football operations George Craig, firstly as head of recruitment and then sporting director once Craig decided to retire in late 2019.
Supporters need no reminding of how awful a state the club were in at the time of Mathie’s arrival. A dwindling support furiously protested the club’s board after the humiliating play-off loss to Hamilton Accies, in which Terry Butcher’s side conspired to throw away a 2-0 home lead against a lower-league opponent having only just won their first game in months a few days prior.
The bungling of the previous regime in dealing with Butcher, initially choosing to keep him on before, correctly, listening to Dempster’s advice that it would be a better idea to cut ties with one of the most unpopular managers in the club’s history, meant the new caretakers were left with a threadbare squad, Butcher’s successor Alan Stubbs barely in the door and the season fast approaching.
As head of recruitment, Mathie was instrumental in building up a squad which was able to finish above Rangers in the most competitive second-tier Scottish football has ever seen. This improvement continued the following season with 114 years of hurt coming to an end with that glorious cup final victory over the Ibrox side.
In fact, strong additions to the first team have been a staple of Hibs throughout Mathie’s time in the capital and, barring some minor blips along the way, namely Neil Lennon’s final months and Paul Heckingbottom’s tenure, the club consistently rose up through the Scottish football pyramid to their first third-place finish in 16 years.
Going back to McGinn. It’s odd to think back now, but there was a bit of reticence around the Scotland regular when his contract expired at St Mirren in 2015. He’d been excellent after initially breaking through the ranks in Paisley and was a key component in them beating Hearts in the 2013 League Cup final, but his final year with the club was a disaster. They were relegated without looking remotely good enough for most of the campaign while McGinn toiled in midfield. But Mathie was insistent this was a talented player in a poor situation and exactly the man required to help take Hibs to the next level. His relentless pursuit of the player also helped convince McGinn his future belonged in Edinburgh rather than going down south.
Josh Doig is another noted example of someone Mathie was responsible for bringing in following the left-back’s exit from Tynecastle. The recruitment hasn’t all been plain sailing, but you just have to look over to the maroon half of the city to recognise just how much of a crapshoot the transfer market can be at times and spending more than the majority of the Premiership doesn’t guarantee success.
Mathie leaves a side bursting with attacking talent who are favourites to once again finish best of the rest – or even higher if Celtic don’t get their act together – which would guarantee group-stage football on the continent for the first time in the club’s history.
Criticism of his work appeared after the failure to get a move for St Mirren’s Jamie McGrath over the line on deadline day, which saw Scott Allan and Drey Wright left in a state of limbo after they were informed they were going to be used as makeweights in the deal. But while that left Hibs a little red-faced, it was still a successful summer overall with the club managing to keep hold of all their most-prized assists in Doig, Kevin Nisbet and Ryan Porteous. Bids have been turned down for all three players in 2021, a decision which was ultimately Mathie’s to make.
His enthusiastic and friendly demeanour also made him a popular figure around the club and he established a strong relationship with members of the squad he was paid to oversee. As the Evening News understands, this was crucial in maintaining squad harmony during the pandemic when players were asked to take pay cuts as the sporting director, who was also handed the role of interim head of academy, liaised with senior professionals to make the situation as painless as possible.
Ron Gordon’s tenure as owner has seen a number of changes to the infrastructure in EH7. The American-based businessman is ambitious and hungry for success. If he believes a change is necessary for Hibs to make the next step then that’s only fair. But there is a lot riding on this particular hire. He needs to get Mathie’s replacement right.