Anthony Brown: Wretched run under Paul Heckingbottom steered Hibs into dangerous territory

Anthony Brown looks back at where it all went wrong for axed Hibs boss

Tuesday, 5th November 2019, 6:00 am
Paul Heckingbottom's time at Hibs has come to an end. Pic: SNS
Paul Heckingbottom's time at Hibs has come to an end. Pic: SNS

An eight-and-half-month journey with Paul Heckingbottom at the wheel ultimately ended yesterday afternoon, with the Yorkshireman having steered Hibs badly off course and into dangerous territory.

In those early weeks after replacing Neil Lennon in mid-February, all manner of exciting destinations seemed possible as the Yorkshireman kick-started the Leith side and swiftly moved them into the fast lane. “Hecky’s at the wheel” was the spring-time chant of choice among supporters as Hibs, who had stalled under Heckingbottom’s predecessor, started motoring once more, overtaking rivals seemingly by the fortnight as they rapidly climbed from eighth to fifth in the Premiership. The serenity of the opening two months – which included away wins over Dundee, St Johnstone, Livingston and Hearts, home victories over Hamilton and Motherwell and spirited home draws against both Celtic and Rangers – wasn’t to last, however.

Even before the end of the season, there were hints that Hibs were starting to veer off track once more as they won none of their closing five fixtures in the top six, scoring only two goals in the process. The close-season represented a crossroads for Heckingbottom, but just four months into his first full campaign in Edinburgh it had become painfully apparent that he had inadvertently taken Hibs on a dangerous journey towards trouble. While everyone acknowledged there was a need for an overhaul of the squad at the end of a testing campaign in which the team ultimately did well to finish in the top six, the nature of the work undertaken over the summer left supporters underwhelmed at best and alarmed at worst.

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While it was no fault of Heckingbottom’s that Marc McNulty and Stephane Omeonga, the two loan stars who played key roles in his promising early months, proved out of reach for Hibs on a more permanent basis, the manager had to carry the can for the uninspiring make-up of the squad, which was evident at the start of the campaign in July and remained the case by the time the transfer window had closed at the start of September.

The decision to let holding midfield duo Mark Milligan and Marvin Bartley leave without adequate replacement has proved to be particularly damaging. Starting with Christian Doidge, Florian Kamberi and the out-of-favour Oli Shaw as the only central strikers was also a flawed call.

The lack of productivity from Heckingbottom’s summer signings, the majority of whom came from the lower leagues in England, has served to highlight the folly of not pursuing the possibility of re-signing either Dylan McGeouch or Jason Cummings, two Scottish Cup-winning heroes in their mid-20s who had previously proven they could deal with the demands of playing for Hibs and would, certainly in the latter’s instance, have been open to the possibility of a return.

Heckingbottom, understandably, wanted to do things his way, but it rather sums up the lack of positive impact he has been able to trigger at Hibs that the best of the summer arrivals has proven to be Scott Allan, who had already been recruited on a pre-contract in January when Lennon was still in charge.

Even then, Allan has been unable to operate consistently at his scintillating best in his third spell at Hibs, largely due to the lack of inspiration and effective movement around about him. While poor recruitment has been a significant factor in Heckingbottom’s demise as Hibs manager, his inability to get the best out of any of the players available to him this season has proven similarly damaging. With no wins in 90 minutes since the opening day of the league campaign, and both Doidge and Kamberi struggling to produce their best form when deployed on their own up front, Heckingbottom’s reluctance to start with his two principal centre-forwards together in attack was proving increasingly exasperating for supporters and players alike. Indeed, in the wake of the chastening 5-2 Betfred Cup semi-final defeat by Celtic at the weekend, Kamberi told the Evening News: “When I came on in the last two games and we played two up top with Scotty (Allan) behind us, we had more choices going forward. I think Doidgey, like me, also feels more comfortable when he has a partner beside him. I think we’ve shown two times in a row that we can play together but at the end of the day the manager decides how he wants to play.”

While no player at Hibs can claim to have been operating at their peak this term, alienating fans’ favourites like Kamberi and Ofir Marciano, neither of whom have taken kindly to being dropped to the bench over the past month and a half, did little for Heckingbottom’s prospects of maintaining harmony in the dressing-room amid the grim win-less period that ultimately culminated in his dismissal.

While his team showed flickers of promise over the past six weeks, there wasn’t enough evidence that they were about to catch fire any time soon. They may well have been able to eke out one or two victories in the next few weeks, but with the current squad – afflicted by brittleness when placed under pressure and seemingly lacking the quality required to gun for the European places – it was hard to envisage Heckingbottom being able to sustain a run of form long enough to turn a disenchanted public in his favour. Even if he had beaten St Johnstone this weekend, for instance, he would still only have been one draw or defeat away from another post-match outcry from supporters. Scepticism among the fanbase had been growing steadily ever since the season-opening 1-1 draw away to Stirling Albion in the Betfred Cup in July. The team’s involvement in that competition came to an end on Saturday, with Heckingbottom being jeered and heckled by several of the Hibs supporters who had watched their team lose 5-2 to Celtic at Hampden. Heckingbottom, a likeable and engaging character away from the heat of battle, had become a hapless figure in the eyes of many supporters. The level of vitriol being aimed towards the embattled manager on a weekly basis effectively made his position untenable.

Heckingbottom was understandably disappointed when informed yesterday afternoon that his time in charge of Hibs was over, but having been sacked after just 16 games in his previous job at Leeds United and after spending much of the past couple of months fielding questions about his job security, the 42-year-old would have been all too aware that the end of the road was looming.

While predecessors like Pat Fenlon and Colin Calderwood became prickly with the media when the pressure was cranked up towards the end of their respective reigns, Heckingbottom maintained his dignity to the end, answering all questions – no matter how awkward – in a respectful manner. Indeed, in what proved to be his final pre-match press conference on Friday, Heckingbottom seemed in philosophical mood, outlining how he would stick to his principles even if it resulted him getting the sack. He spoke well about all aspects of football throughout his time in Edinburgh but, regrettably for all concerned, was unable to get a tune out of his team over a six-month period in which he managed only one Premiership victory, an unconvincing 1-0 win at home to St Mirren.

This wretched run of form left confidence-shorn Hibs one point off the bottom of the table more than a quarter of the way into the season and seemingly free-wheeling helplessly towards hazard. With the catastrophic 2013/14 season still fresh in the memories of all connected with the club, it would have been negligent if the Hibs hierarchy hadn’t reached over to pull up the handbrake and prevent another Terry Butcher-style crash. To the relief of concerned supporters, Hecky is no longer at the wheel.