Comment: History suggests Hibs will give Paul Heckingbottom more time – but it is running out
A significant number of Hibs fans may have already made up their mind on Paul Heckingbottom, but the likelihood is that the manager will be given time to improve things after a difficult start to the season.
There is no wild sacking culture within Scottish football and certainly not at Hibs in recent years.
Alan Stubbs and Neil Lennon were both allowed to ride out poor periods within their respective reigns, and, although supporters have vented their ire towards Heckingbottom after - and occasionally during - each of the team’s past four games, it is hard to imagine the club’s hierarchy would be of a mind to cut the manager loose at a time when they are in no imminent danger and fresh from having completed what was described by chief executive Leeann Dempster last Friday as a “strong” transfer window.
Granted, that statement, which most supporters disagreed with, was made prior to Saturday’s grim 3-0 defeat at Motherwell when, for a variety of reasons, only three of the nine summer signings - Glenn Middleton, Adam Jackson and Scott Allan - were selected in the starting line-up.
Looking at it on paper alone, the manager’s record isn’t particularly bad. He has presided over 23 matches in total since replacing Lennon in mid-February, winning 11 and losing six (with five of the defeats coming against teams who finished in the top four of the Premiership last season). He can legitimately point to the fact he lifted a previously dysfunctional team from eighth to fifth last season. That feat alone ensures he has some credit in the bank, while his team - despite making heavy weather of it - are in the quarter-finals of the Betfred Cup.
For context, the most recent Hibs managers to be sacked solely because of results were shown the door after overseeing significantly more calamity than Heckingbottom. Terry Butcher went in the wake of a catastrophic nosedive towards relegation; Pat Fenlon was ousted after a home defeat by an administration-ravaged team of Hearts youngsters in the League Cup a few months after a 9-0 aggregate defeat by Malmo and a little over a year after losing 5-1 to Hearts in the Scottish Cup final; Colin Calderwood was dismissed following just 12 wins in 49 matches and with the team lying ninth in the table in November.
If Heckingbottom were to be sacked during this international break, for all that the season has started in wholly unconvincing fashion, he would be perfectly entitled to feel hard done by.
The problem, in terms of the supporters’ perception of him, is that many are of the belief that his reign is destined to head in a similar direction to those of Fenlon and Calderwood. This pessimism is based on a season-opening draw at League Two Stirling Albion, unconvincing home form, heavy away defeats to Rangers and Motherwell, and an underwhelming summer recruitment drive which has left the squad looking short of the required quality to push for Europe.
The only notable positives have been relatively convincing wins over Arbroath and Elgin City and the form of Allan and, in flashes, Florian Kamberi.
Much will now depend on how tuned in new owner Ron Gordon is to the views of the supporters and whether he can see genuine reason for optimism with Heckingbottom at the wheel. If there is any doubt about whether the manager is on the right path, things should start to crystallise by the time a daunting September is finished. Upon resuming their campaign following the international break, Hibs face four successive games against sides from last season’s top six - Kilmarnock away, Hearts at home, Kilmarnock away in the Betfred Cup and Celtic at home.
Thus far, Heckingbottom has won one game out of ten against sides who finished in the top six last season - Hearts away in early April.
To emerge from the month ahead with an improved vibe, his team must give some indication that they are now better equipped to compete with the country’s stronger sides than at the tail end of last season. Recent form suggests they are not.
Things can turn quickly, however. Five years ago, for instance, Stubbs’ team was drifting along hopelessly in the early weeks of its first season in the Championship, with losses to Hearts, Falkirk and Alloa Athletic, before things started to take off following rousing September victories away to Ross County in the League Cup and Rangers in the league.
Under Stubbs and for the majority of Lennon’s reign, Hibs would have fancied their chances in all four of these upcoming fixtures, but it is currently hard to make a compelling case for them winning any of them, even allowing for Kilmarnock’s underwhelming start and the mini-crisis currently engulfing Hearts. Killie have started to find their way under Angelo Alessio in recent weeks, while Hearts - regardless of circumstance - usually turn up in the derbies these days.
Assuming he rides out the next few weeks, it is hard to escape the feeling that Heckingbottom needs a derby victory (or, at the very least, a draw) coupled with progress to the Betfred Cup semi-final to earn himself some breathing space and renewed respect from an increasingly sceptical support.
He pulled Hibs up by their bootlaces when he first took over in difficult circumstances; now, throughout this high-stakes September, he must find a way of defying the odds and the club’s baying mob, to do it again.