The countdown to the start of a new football season brings a fresh optimism among fans of every club in the country. No matter how the previous campaign ended, supporters are content to let bygones be bygones as they eye the months ahead hoping, if not quite believing, that things are going to get better.
The opening day fixtures are eagerly awaited, those seemingly endless weeks without a game to attend almost over, fans readying themselves for the predictable ups and downs which will drive them from euphoric highs to the depths of despair – often within the space of just seven days.
With only a few days to go before it all kicks off again, the dream is of success rather than failure, the chance of a first look at the summer arrivals, the inevitable arguments as to whether they are any better than those they’ve replaced and, invariably, the conclusion that, if nothing else, they can’t be any worse.
Such thoughts have undoubtedly been swirling around the heads of Hibs supporters; a promising, if marginal improvement in manager Pat Fenlon’s first full season in charge, a second successive Scottish Cup final – although it ended in much the same fashion as that of the previous season – and, of course, European action to look forward to.
At least that was the scenario of a few days ago, before that Europa League adventure left each and every Hibby shattered, disillusioned and, frankly, embarrassed as Malmo ran in nine goals over the two legs of the second qualifying round tie. The result left the Easter Road club, Britain’s proud pioneers in Europe, boasting (if that is the right word) the worst losing margin of any Scottish club.
Two goals down from the trip to Sweden, the right noises had been made ahead of the second leg, the spirit of AEK Athens, the effect of a big, hostile crowd and so on proving to be nothing more than empty rhetoric as Rikard Norling’s side ran amok, prompting Malmo midfielder Simon Thern to compare the match to as having played against “a bunch of school kids”.
In truth, few of those who had witnessed the first leg seven days earlier would have held out much hope, the Swedes clearly far ahead of Fenlon’s players – and not only thanks to the fact they were already halfway through their season and so were obviously going to be imbued with greater match fitness.
Nonetheless, even Norling himself admitted to having been taken aback by the ease with which his players ripped Hibs asunder, the Malmo boss too much of a diplomat to glory in the final scoreline, instead insisting it had been one of those “lucky” nights when everything his side had tried ended up in the back of Ben Williams’ net.
Fenlon had the appearance of utter devastation as he faced the Press afterwards, immediately acknowledging the embarrassment he was feeling, but also knowing he faced a mammoth task in rebuilding his players’ confidence in the short period between that final whistle and the arrival of Motherwell, second placed in last season’s SPL, at Easter Road this coming Sunday.
While that may be his over-riding priority, Fenlon and those within the boardroom will realise they probably face an even tougher job in convincing their supporters, already used to receiving regular kicks in the teeth, that brighter days do lie ahead.
What an opportunity last Thursday was, with more than 16,000 inside the ground. It was a real chance to perhaps those who evidently weren’t regular visitors that things are, after a few years of pain, moving in the right direction and to persuade them to return on a more frequent basis.
Given Malmo were a superior side, they might have been expected to win again in Edinburgh – even the most die-hard fan will admit there are times when you simply have to concede you’ve been beaten by a better team – but it was the meek capitulation with barely an ounce of fight which left fans both bewildered and angered, Fenlon having often stated the very least they can expect is that those in green-and-white shirts will give their all in each and every game they play in.
Judging by the huge swathes of empty seats which greeted the players after half-time and the manner in which Easter Road continued to empty as the goals flew in, Hibs will struggle to persuade those less than fully dedicated supporters who witnessed the debacle to come back any time soon.
Last week was a missed opportunity on the pitch and it appears Hibs have spurned one off it too. Swindon Town striker James Collins was adamant he had made what was being reported as a £200,000 move to Edinburgh, a claim which was met with resounding silence by the club until some five days later when their announcement told us nothing we already knew.
By allowing that substantial amount of time to pass, chairman Rod Petrie and Fenlon have allowed the impact of a major signing – one which has left many racking their brains to remember the last time Hibs spent such a sum in the transfer market – to totally dissipate.
Certainly no other Scottish club – outwith Celtic – has spent so much in one transaction and yet Collins, like Rowan Vine and Kevin Thomson before him, finds himself brought in under the radar, the previous arrivals having their deals announced on the club website on a Saturday morning and so generating next to no publicity for a double signing coup.
What an opportunity for Petrie to admit that while there have been highs and lows over the years, the club’s determination to live within its means has put it on a sound financial footing with none of the problems which have afflicted others so profoundly, and, that as promised, when the money is available, it will be invested in the team, citing Collins as tangible proof.
It’s hard to imagine Hibs’ rivals being so slow to blow their own trumpets, allowing that air of negativity to hang over the place at a time when everyone within the club, from Petrie down, should be straining every sinew to portray Easter Road as a vibrant, happening place, one in which you’d happily invest your season ticket money.