Analysis: Why Paul Heckingbottom’s Hibs reign is now firmly in Fenlon/Calderwood territory
The numbers are looking ominous for Easter Road boss
Given the extended run of poor form under Paul Heckingbottom, now seems like a reasonable time to draw comparisons with previous Hibs managers.
No wins in nine league games, one win in ten this season, one win in 15 if stretching back to the closing weeks of last term; whichever way you slice it, this is a hugely concerning period for everyone at Easter Road.
The Premiership table, which shows Hibs just a point off the bottom approaching Halloween, adds further reason for alarm among a fanbase who know from relatively recent experience just how dangerous it can be to allow an ominous-looking situation to continue drifting without notable action.
The current nine-game run without a victory in the league is Hibs’ worst since they failed to win any of their closing 13 matches of the 2013/14 campaign as they slipped calamitously into the relegation play-off spot under Terry Butcher. That run involved defeats in eight of the closing nine matches so can be considered notably worse than the current one, which at least features four consecutive draws from the last four games.
At this time last year, Neil Lennon was in the midst of a run of seven games without a league win at a time when it felt like his previously impressive reign was meandering towards its conclusion. He managed to stem that with back-to-back wins away to Hamilton Accies and at home to Celtic in early December before the form dipped once more prior to his January exit.
In the Championship-winning season (2016/17), Lennon also oversaw a grim run of two league wins in ten from February to April, while his predecessor Alan Stubbs had only one win in eight through a similar stage of the Scottish Cup-winning season (2015/16). Both men had the team in the Championship promotion mix at the time of those slumps, while they also had considerably more credit in the bank with supporters than Heckingbottom currently does.
Perhaps the most relevant comparison to the current situation can be found when assessing how things came to an end for Pat Fenlon and Colin Calderwood, the last two Hibs managers to leave the Easter Road hotseat before a campaign reached the halfway point. Fenlon left after a home defeat by Hearts in the League Cup at the end of October 2013. His last nine league games featured four wins and three draws - 15 points from a possible 27. The team sat sixth in the table at his point of departure.
It must also be noted, of course, that Fenlon had been subjected to some humiliating Edinburgh derby defeats - most notably the 2012 Scottish Cup final - and had overseen a 9-0 aggregate defeat by Malmo in a Europa League qualifier, although he did have back-to-back Scottish Cup final appearances on his CV.
Fenlon picked up the reins from Calderwood, who had left Hibs in ninth place at the start of November 2011 after two wins and four draws in his closing nine games - ten points from a possible 27.
To recap, Heckingbottom currently has no wins in nine - five points from a possible 27 - and one win in 15 stretching back into last term. His team sit 11th, one point off the bottom, as we approach the dates on which Fenlon and Calderwood were cut loose.
The upcoming Betfred Cup semi-final against Celtic gives Heckingbottom a glimmer of hope to cling to, but even then, progress to the last four has been far from a serene procession, with a group-stage draw against League Two Stirling Albion in July setting the tone for the season, then extra-time required to see off Championship side Morton following the concession of a 2-0 lead in the last 16, and penalties needed to defeat Kilmarnock following a quarter-final slog.
It would be easier to make a case for Heckingbottom if he had some credit in the bank in the form of previous successes at the club, but any goodwill generated among supporters following the promising opening couple of months of his reign has long since disappeared. With the manager’s back now firmly against the wall, the key point for assessment at present is whether there is any genuine sign of things getting better. Four consecutive draws in the league on the back of the shootout win over Killie in the Betfred Cup would at least suggest Hibs have become hard to beat, and they should arguably have won at least three of those Premiership games before throwing away the lead. Ultimately, however, they have relinquished a position of power so many times in recent months that it highlights a fragility and lack of leadership to help see things out when the pressure is on in the closing stages of matches.
The problem is that there are very few players waiting in the wings who are equipped to come in any time soon and aid an upturn. David Gray and Darren McGregor always add a degree of extra steel when operating at their best but both players are likely to require several months before they are back at full pelt in terms of fitness and form. Likewise, Martin Boyle is an obvious game-changer when fully fit and firing but after the best part of ten months out, he is unlikely to be ready to play at his best any time soon.
After a questionable summer transfer window, the Hibs squad - with several decent players but a lack of genuine stardust - looks short of the required standard to handle supporter expectations and compete for the Europa League places. The January transfer window now appears to represent Heckingbottom’s best hope of being able to turn things round, but given the rate at which the numbers are stacking up against him, there can be no guarantee he will make it to 2020 as Hibs manager.