As he strolled around Malmo’s Lilla Torg the day before the first leg of Hibs’ Europa League tie in the Swedish town, Easter Road chairman Rod Petrie could never have contemplated the Edinburgh club going into meltdown just ten months later.
While Petrie has never been a universally popular figure, he was the man in demand that sunny afternoon, fans deserting the Drum Bar – where the canny owner had slashed the cost of a pint of beer to “just” £5 to cash in on the influx of Hibee supporters – to have their photograph taken with him.
Mid-July and life didn’t appear as if it couldn’t get any better, Hibs enjoying a bit of foreign travel while Capital rivals Hearts had plunged into administration, deducted 15 points, hammered with a transfer embargo and with the very existence of the Tynecastle club under threat.
With the Jambos toiling and Rangers out of the top flight for yet another season this, surely, was going to be Hibs’ best chance ever to have a tilt if not at the title itself, a much more respectable finish than the three previous campaigns which had seen them finish tenth, 11th, seventh and 11th again.
If ever the warning “be careful what you wish for” should have been ringing loud and clear it was then. For football has a funny habit of kicking you where it hurts when you least expect it.
How Hibs have been kicked, left on their knees, battered and bruised, relegated and now facing one season and probably more in the Championship, a scenario which has seen boss Terry Butcher mercilessly wield the axe in chopping 14 players – with possibly more to come.
The “massive restructuring” which Butcher envisaged even if Hibs had survived in the Scottish Premiership now begins but it’s clear such is the magnitude of the task that it’s barely conceivable it can be completed in time for the start of next season which will see the new-look team do battle with Rangers and Hearts for that one automatic promotion place.
Amid the anger, the finger-pointing and threats of retribution towards those in charge, the over-riding question, however, has to be just how did it come to this for a club recognised as one of the best run in the country, one boasting a 20,400 capacity stadium and a £5million state-of-the-art training centre, facilities which are the envy of most others in Scotland.
It is, of course, easy to point to the freefall of the past few months, a record of just one win in their last 18 league games relegation form in anyone’s language culminating in an inability to seize the lifeline afforded by a play-off despite having a two-goal advantage from the first leg away to Hamilton Accies.
However, while that, ultimately, is the reason for Hibs’ fall from grace, it’s too simplistic an approach, the downward spiral which has gripped the club more deep-seated and with a history which can be traced back over the past few years when managers have come and gone on almost an annual basis.
The upshot has been that while Hibs are financially sound the ever-revolving exit door has created an instability within the changing room, a constant flow of departures and arrivals as each “gaffer” has, in turn, attempted to take the club forward. Each change, though, has resulted in new faces being brought in and, it has to be said, with almost as many failures as successes when you rattle through names like Valdas Trakys, Edwin de Graaf, David Stephens, Junior Agogo, Matt Thornhill, Jakub Divis, Pa Kujabi, Shefki Kuqi and Fraser Mullen to mention but a few.
The timing of each “changing of the guard” has also mitigated against continuity, John Hughes, Colin Calderwood and Pat Fenlon all departing a few months into the season, leaving their successor’s hands tied until the January transfer window when, as everyone knows, the only players generally available are those that their clubs don’t want.
As is the nature of football each change has been greeted, if not with universal acceptance, at least a sense of hope that this, at last, is the “right man,” only for that optimism to vanish and be replaced by questions as to why Petrie and the board have managed to get it wrong time after time.
Hughes, as a Hibs fan and former player and captain was, of course, hailed as a local hero as had John Collins and Mixu Paatelainen been before him, Calderwood, though, proved an unmitigated disaster, his infamous assertion that when confronted with two bags of sweets you want to have a look inside each as Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest were touting for his services, making it, in the fans’ eyes all about “me, me, me” rather than the greater good of the club.
Fenlon, like Calderwood without an intimate knowledge of Scottish football, arrived with the sole remit of ensuring Hibs remained in the top flight, the Irishman fulfilling that obligation and presenting the club with an unexpected bonus in the shape of a Scottish Cup final which, as we all know ended in calamity, a 5-1 thumping by Hearts. However, 11th place was enough to keep Hibs up with signs of improvement the following season with a seventh-place finish and, again, a Scottish Cup final which, once more, ended in defeat, this time by Celtic.
That second Hampden final, though, was enough to earn Hibs a tilt at Europe and on to that pleasant afternoon meander through central Malmo for Petrie and his fellow directors. Those smiles turned to grimaces barely a week later as Hibs, already two goals down, shipped another seven in front of a 16,000 crowd to record the worst ever aggregate defeat for a Scottish team in Europe.
Like that Hampden hammering by Hearts it hung like a millstone round the neck of Fenlon, who eventually decided enough was enough, packing his bags for Dublin believing the story had all become about him and just his presence was holding Hibs back.
Butcher was the obvious target, Hibs believing he could replicate the success he had enjoyed at Inverness Caley on a far smaller budget. The former England captain, though, inherited a horribly imbalanced squad, packed with central midfielders, lacking pace and width while glaring shortcomings hadn’t been fully addressed.
Right-back, for example, was and continued to be a problem position with Tim Clancy out having had a groin operation, resulting in the veteran Alan Maybury, the left-sided Lewis Stevenson and centre-half Jordon Forster all called upon. Central defence, too, was left short-handed as then club captain James McPake’s continuing back problems required surgery. Up front the lengthy pursuit of 28-goal Leigh Griffiths, which was always doomed to failure, saw James Collins, a £200,000 signing, and Paul Heffernan, freed by Kilmarnock, make belated moves to Edinburgh.
Collins, however, struggled to match his 18 goals for Swindon, his half-dozen reflecting Hibs’ season-long problem in that department while injuries to Heffernan left 18-year-old rookie Jason Cummings in his first season as a pro as the only alternative.
Butcher’s reign began with a bit of promise, just one defeat – by a single goal away to Celtic – in his first nine matches, results which raised hopes of a top-six finish only for that dream to evaporate and be replaced by that grim battle for survival which sucked the confidence from players and fans alike.
The finger of blame can be pointed in many directions and Butcher himself can’t be absolved as he accepts, given his failure to turn things around over the past six months. He would, no doubt, agree mistakes have been made. Should he have made his withering assessment of the squad public or kept his thoughts to himself?
Should he have decided that no matter what he thought of many of the players he was going to identify his best 11 and play them in the formation which suited them best to see out the season and then make changes rather than, although his hand was forced on a number of occasions by injury and suspension, chop and change, sometimes as many as five or six players at a time, in search of that elusive winning formula?
Could better use have been made of the January transfer window given Duncan Watmore, Daniel Boateng and Danny Haynes made such limited contributions to the cause and should the battle to keep Hibs up have been left to more experienced players such as Kevin Thomson, Paul Cairney and Tom Taiwo who drifted in and out of the team rather than youngsters like Sam Stanton, Alex Harris and Cummings?
Points Butcher will no doubt he contemplating as he enjoys a much-curtailed holiday before returning to begin the Herculean task ahead.