Hibs have acknowledged the scale of the rebuilding task which lies before manager Pat Fenlon over the coming weeks following the “devastating” defeat by arch-rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup final.
That Fenlon required to reshape – and how – his squad in readiness for next season was evident to all even before the debacle of Hampden, the Easter Road outfit having only secured SPL safety in their penultimate game with victory over basement side Dunfermline.
Seeing their side finish tenth and now 11th in the table was bad enough for the Easter Road support, but the meek capitulation they witnessed from those in green-and-white jerseys at the weekend was both unpalatable and unacceptable.
The memory of that 5-1 thrashing will haunt every Hibs fan who was there for the rest of their lives, their hopes and expectations of a possible Scottish Cup win after 110 years of waiting dashed in those 90 minutes.
As always, the vast majority of fans judge their club’s well- being against the fortunes of their city neighbours and at present it doesn’t make for particularly pleasant reading, 11 derbies without a win in a run which now stretches back more than three years.
Saturday’s thrashing, however, merely served to underline what many have been saying for months, a drastic and far-reaching overhaul is long overdue. As Fenlon has said, the club’s decline has taken place over a period of time and there is no magic wand to be waved which will reverse that process overnight.
However, having thrown together a team charged with the primary objective of ensuring Hibs remained in the top flight, the departure of those who arrived on loan to meet that target along with the exit of a number of players who are now out of contract, offers Fenlon the opportunity to begin shaping his own squad with an eye on the longer term.
The future, though, is being viewed with more than a touch of trepidation and anxiety by the supporters, wary of what next season might hold given the travails of the past two years as far as the bread-and-butter business of league football is concerned.
There will, of course, be new arrivals over the course of the summer, replacements for the likes of James McPake, Leigh Griffiths, Matt Doherty, George Francomb, Richie Towell, Roy O’Donovan and Tom Soares, who have all returned to their parent clubs while Garry O’Connor, Mark Brown and Graham Stack have all to learn whether or not they’ll be offered new deals. Ian Murray has already been told he won’t get a new contract.
Some may return. The supporters would certainly like to see McPake and Griffiths back although both have insisted that for the time being at least they are content to return to Coventry City and Wolverhampton Wanderers respectively.
But, as things stand, Fenlon has been left with a threadbare squad, one which many would say might struggle to make much of an impact next season. Of those who faced Hearts a few days ago, only Paul Hanlon, Isaiah Osbourne, Lewis Stevenson, Jorge Claros, Pa Kujabi, Eoin Doyle and Ivan Sproule remain, while of the others still under contract, only Sean O’Hanlon, Callum Booth, David Wotherspoon, David Stephens and Danny Galbraith can consider themselves in the first-team category.
With both Brown and Stack likely to leave, finding a reliable No. 1 will be a priority for Fenlon, his only alternatives as of today being Calum Antell, who spent last season on loan with Third Division East Stirling, and Paul Grant, who sat on the bench at Hampden following Stack’s thigh injury. Finding a leader in the mould of McPake, assuming he stays put at the Ricoh Arena, will also be at the top of Fenlon’s list, the manager having made it clear he feels there is an acceptance and softness pervading the club which needs to be eradicated. As far as Fenlon is concerned, there is a mindset which needs changed – players required with the desire, passion and hunger which many felt was all too evidently lacking when the going got tough in Glasgow. It would be unfair to thrust that sort of responsibility on youngsters such as Sam Stanton, Ross Caldwell and Danny Handling, a trio brimming with potential but a promise which needs to be nurtured in the right way.
Hibs fans will be waiting with bated breath to see just who Fenlon brings in although they’ll have to be patient, the immediate aftermath of any season seeing very little transfer activity as players and managers alike take a break.
Like all managers, Fenlon’s search for possible signings began a long time ago, Hibs’ parlous position at the foot of the table preventing him making concrete moves.
Now that situation has been clarified he can do so, but he’ll no doubt have to use a fair amount of the Irish gift of the gab if he is to persuade some of those he’d like to bring to Edinburgh that the future for Hibs over the next couple of seasons is going to be much brighter than the last two years.