Hibs next manager hunt begins: Why right replacement for Lee Johnson could complete jigsaw
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And so it proved to be for Lee Johnson, who has been relieved of his duties as Easter Road boss after 52 games in charge. Two renditions of ‘Johnson, Johnson, get to f**k’ were apparently all it took to convince the board of directors that it was time for a change in the hot seat.
But it won’t have just been the reaction from the supporters. The result and performance against David Martindale’s Livingston side were arguably worse than Wednesday night’s defeat by Aston Villa – particularly the speed and the manner in which the visitors retook the lead after Martin Boyle’s equaliser. There was no reaction to the chastening European defeat and from the first whistle, or at least from Livi’s ninth-minute opener, Hibs looked doomed to another domestic defeat. Hibs haven’t lost their opening three league matches since the 2002/03 season when they were defeated by Aberdeen, Hearts, and Rangers. It’s also worth pointing out that Hibs lost two out of their first three league games in 2013/14 and went on to suffer relegation via the play-offs so it’s perhaps understandable that the Easter Road board was quick to react this time.
When the fixtures for this season first came out, the overwhelming feeling amongst the support was that the team had a really good chance to get some early momentum in a bid to finish in the European places once more. Despite an opening-day defeat by St Mirren, the performance over two legs against Luzern sparked hope that some of that energy and determination could seep into domestic fixtures. But if anything, they got worse.
Johnson had been under pressure last season after a poor run of form in the lead-up to the World Cup break, and appeared to be on the brink at the turn of the year after a lacklustre Edinburgh derby performance at Tynecastle but an uptick in results and occasionally performances suggested a corner had been turned. Summer recruitment looked more organised and structured this time around with director of football Brian McDermott helping to bring in experienced players such as Adam Le Fondre and Jordan Obita along with spending money on younger prospects like Élie Youan and Dylan Vente. Domestic results, however, didn’t match expectations.
With the international break on the horizon and David Gray tasked with leading the team in the interim, Hibs have a bit of time to appoint a new manager rather than being rushed into anything. The usual suspects will be linked with the role – Neil Lennon, Derek McInnes, and John Kennedy to name three – but the board needs an appointment who can get results, reinvigorate the fanbase, and inspire the players. It won’t necessarily be someone with a prior connection to the club; CEO Ben Kensell said during the director of football search that it would be ‘great if they were connected but… you can very quickly become connected to a club through your passion and will to be a success’.
In Shaun Maloney, Hibs took a chance on a highly-rated coach; in Johnson they hoped that by bringing in an experienced manager with a ‘proven record of success’ they could avoid the same mistakes they made the previous time.
Michael Appleton has been linked with the post before on more than one occasion and was the frontrunner before Paul Heckingbottom was eventually appointed in February 2019. The 47-year-old former Lincoln City and Blackpool boss is currently out of work after leaving Bloomfield Road but the Hibs hierarchy may be looking for a different type of candidate this time around.
Off the field at least, things are going well for Hibs. On the football side, a state of flux remains. The appointment of McDermott appeared to signal a return to a more stable structure at the top of the club with a view to reducing upheaval below. But it was telling when former Easter Road midfielder John McGinn, speaking ahead of his return to the Capital, said: “I don't think they've found the right formula yet since Leeann Dempster left.”
Completing the jigsaw
Away from on-field matters, Hibs are winning plaudits. The hospitality offering is streets ahead of what it used to be, while attempts to be as environmentally friendly as possible have earned the club industry award nominations. Recruitment appears, on paper at least, to be less scattergun than it was previously.
All Hibs need to do now is source a manager who ticks a lot of boxes. It would be a shock if they went for another risky appointment but perhaps the Gordon family’s willingness to subsidise certain elements of the club’s football business, such as the transfer fee for Vente, hints at the possibility of a candidate who might previously have been out of the club’s reach in financial terms, being more attainable.
Hibs will hope to go deep in both domestic cup competitions as well as be fighting for the top European berths come the end of the season and 35 remaining league games is plenty of time for a new manager to turn things around – the final piece of the jigsaw, if you will.
The right decision?
With Hibs losing their first three league games for the first time in 20 years against three teams who they defeated last season with relative ease, the writing was on the wall. Last season Johnson had a knack of getting results when it really mattered – think the 6-0 victory over Aberdeen in ‘El Sackio’, or the 1-1 draw with ten men against St Johnstone to secure top six football.
This season though, certainly domestically, that was missing and with the same mistakes occurring on a game-by-game basis, combined with the manner of the defeat by Livingston and reaction from the fans, Johnson’s position had finally become untenable.