Hibs started badly and tailed off - where it all went wrong in chaotic campaign

Defensive woes - Bushiri (left) and Hanlon look dejected after another loss.Defensive woes - Bushiri (left) and Hanlon look dejected after another loss.
Defensive woes - Bushiri (left) and Hanlon look dejected after another loss.
At Easter Road, xG stands for expected gaffers over course of a season ...

Hibs fans have been through much, much tougher times down the years. But that is no consolation to a support base watching their club stumble from crisis to chaos, calamity to crashing disappointment.

At the end of a campaign that could be used as a textbook example of how NOT to run a football club, the first step to recovery must be an examination of everything – from minor detail to major disaster – that went wrong in season 2023-24. Just because it could have been worse, that’s no excuse for pretending that everything is automatically going to be OK, once the new manager is appointed.

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So let’s take one final look back at the missteps and mistakes that contributed to Hibs, one of Scotland’s great sporting institutions, ending up spinning their wheels in the bottom six. And operating with all the focused direction of a runaway charabanc.

Poor foundations

You know the old joke, about the guy asking for directions to the pub/post office/train station, only to be told: “Well, I wouldn’t start from here …”? That rather sums up the situation Hibs found themselves in at the start of the season.

It’s only in retrospect, of course, that many can see how ill-equipped they were to compete for a place in the top three – the obvious target every season. Although some did flag up the odd problem at the time.

Lee Johnson, having secured Europa Conference League football by finishing fifth in season 2022-23, was backed heavily in the transfer market by the Easter Road board. In came Dylan Vente, Jordan Obita, Dylan Levitt, Riley Harbottle, Adam Le Fondre, Jojo Wollacott and Max Boruc, while Elie Youan’s previous loan spell earned him a permanent deal – and Will Fish returned for another stint on loan from Manchester United.

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But, of course, they lost Kevin Nisbet to Millwall. Anyone who has watched Hibs struggle to score goals this season, even in games where they’ve dominated the opposition, will recognise how much the striker’s departure impacted on the team. Hibs fans watching their city rivals fly high on the back of a proven goal scorer’s hot streak need no reminders of what they’re missing.

A bad start

Blame it on the stresses and strains of European football. Blame it on the sunshine or, indeed, the boogie. For whatever reason, Hibs came out of the gates looking anything like thoroughbreds limbering up for a canter through the upper echelons of Scotland’s elite division.

Despite getting past Inter Club D’Escaldes and – much more impressively – Lucerne, before getting scudded 5-0 at home by Aston Villa on a largely enjoyable, if truncated, European adventure, Johnson’s men lost their first three Scottish Premiership games. And anyone who was there to see Livingston beat Hibs 3-2 at Easter Road could testify that the home side were in serious trouble.

All change again

Whatever your opinion of Johnson, and he doesn’t seem to have too many fans back in Edinburgh, ditching him after three rounds of league fixtures felt like something of a snap decision. If the board had really harboured such serious concerns over his ability, they ought to have ditched him in the summer. Not allowed him to spend significant sums bringing in his own players to play his own style of football.

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Johnson paid the price for a terrible start.Johnson paid the price for a terrible start.
Johnson paid the price for a terrible start. | SNS Group

Nick Montgomery arrived from Australia with a plan to rebuild Hibs. A long-term blueprint laid out in clear steps to directors, who agreed to give the former Central Coast Mariners boss – an A-League winner with a club right at the bottom of the budget table – time and resources to do the necessary.

If they didn’t have bad luck …

A lot of different mistakes – bad decisions, mental lapses, physical slip-ups and tactical errors – went into Hibs failing to make the top six at the Scottish Premiership split. But ill fortune definitely played a part.

Leave aside the usual gripes about injuries. Everybody has ‘em. Every manager has to find a way to work without their best players, at times.

But the admission, by the SFA’s Independent Review Panel, that Hibs were the victims of two potentially season-defining VAR decisions during the run-in cannot be ignored as a factor. Especially given the nature of the decisions.

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The panel found that Monty’s men should have been awarded a penalty in their incredibly damaging 2-1 home loss to St Johnstone; away keeper Dimitar Mitov cleaned out Emi Marcondes, a clear and obvious foul with the game still goalless. Even more galling was the admission that Hearts should NOT have been awarded their penalty in February’s 1-1 draw at Tynecastle.

Throw in Hibs receiving an apology for Aberdeen defender Nicky Devlin’s blatant handball at Pittodrie, and Ross County scoring from a throw-in that should have gone the other way, and you can see why Montgomery felt aggrieved. Of course, if his team defended set pieces better, none of the above would have mattered quite so much …

Never a penalty ... but later admission of error didn’t help Hibs as they dropped points at TynecastleNever a penalty ... but later admission of error didn’t help Hibs as they dropped points at Tynecastle
Never a penalty ... but later admission of error didn’t help Hibs as they dropped points at Tynecastle | SNS Group

Zero momentum

To say that Hibs struggled to get going would be an understatement. Only once, under Montgomery, did they manage to win back-to-back Scottish Premiership games. An incredible stat.

Their three-game winning streak in November/December, knocking off Killie, Dundee and the Dons in quick succession, was as good as it got. That’s no way to build a successful season.

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The elephant in the room, when discussing this, is an international calendar that saw Hibs players jet off to the Asian Cup and Africa Cup of Nations in January and February. The absence of Socceroos players Martin Boyle and Lewis Miller, at a time when goals were hard to come by and Chris Cadden was still working his way back from injury, were particularly hard to bear.

Rocky Bushiri’s involvement with the DRC in AFCON – in a non-playing role, ironically – was definitely a problem for a team short on central defenders. On that note, it remains amazing that Hibs got through the January window without adding a fit and functioning centre-half, with Owen Bevan’s injury leaving Montgomery working with the same malfunctioning defence he’d inherited from Johnson.

All change again (again)

All the grand plans involving giving Montgomery time to build something lasting counted for nothing when Hibs threw away a place in the top six over the closing stages of a dismal 1-1 draw with Motherwell in the final round of pre-split fixtures. Getting stuffed 4-0 by Aberdeen – and not a very good Aberdeen – was the final straw for the board, who decided to rip everything out and start again. Well, it’s what they do.

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And now?

As interim boss David Gray points out, the League Cup group games will be upon Hibs before they realise what has hit them. When clubs talk about taking their time to get Mr Right, rather than Mr Right Now, they ignore the fact that everyone in football is on the clock. It’s how the game works.

With new sporting director Malky Mackay leading the recruitment, it shouldn’t take too long for Hibs to find the next man up. Gray is already making a strong case for a battlefield promotion. The fact that he wants the job demonstrates bravery, certainly. Because, as the former captain well understands, even the finest plans and best intentions are no guarantees of success at Easter Road.