Well, as planned, I got along to Easter Road last Saturday for one of my all-too-irregular visits. The game against fellow strugglers, Kilmarnock had built up into something of a crescendo in terms of importance, since the time I booked my modest trip to the Capital, with the loser being consigned to the indignity and frayed nerves of a play-off position for relegation to the Championship. Privately, and in spite of the odds and all indicators, I’d felt that Hibs might well come through this test but sadly it was not to be.
From observing recent televised games and listening to fellow supporters, there appeared to be something of a pattern forming with the Hibs huffing and puffing to no great end before being scored on and becoming totally deflated. It didn’t take a football genius to spot the same blueprint from my lofty position in the East Stand on Saturday. It’s sad, it really is. One can see that in spite of all the team’s many shortcomings it may only take a casual slice of luck to change fortunes, a coat of paint on a goalpost, a fortunate bounce but any good fortune does indeed appear to be hiding.
It was heartening to see the manager going with a little more experience in this game. I’m a great fan of youth being introduced early, but a relegation dogfight is not a good arena for a young player to learn his craft. One might opine that the more experienced members of the squad should also be charged with getting the club out of the abject mess it they placed it in.
It’s probably predictable to praise or slate players but there were glaring moments when Hibs’ rearguard completely forgot their remit and stood static allowing the likes of Kris Boyd an opening for his well-taken goal. Whatever Boyd might or might not be these days I’m afraid you don’t allow him cart blanche to use his craft to find space around the box, not even for a moment.
After the break it became increasingly poorer from a Hibs point of view with Kilmarnock taking control of decently long passages of the game. Craig, who showed some quality at times, rattled a heavy shot off the bar but an avalanche of fortunes never really looked on. A significant moment for me was the introduction of defensive midfielder Tudur-Jones when Hibs were haplessly chasing the game. I’ve seen reasoning that he’s good around set-pieces and that it appeared unlikely that Hibs would score from open play but I’m afraid that just won’t do for me. There was a little period a few months ago when Hibs scored from attacking a corner or two and gained a little success. Is this tactic as good as it gets though? If that’s how we are going to concentrate our offensive efforts then me might as well all go home now. Indeed, it was clear to me that Hibs had little or no method or craft in attempting to creatively carve out an opening or two. The main focus appeared to be the vain hope of getting on the end of a ball bumping and bouncing around the area. Even here Hibs are found lacking with apparently nobody seeming to relish going in where it might hurt to ram that ball in the back of the net.
There has been much criticism of the team of course in the past few months and whilst accepting it wholesale my personal viewpoint is that this group of players are not as inadequate or devoid of ability as they are being decried. There is a clear lack of quality in one or two areas and the squad certainly appears dangerously unbalanced too but for me this is a mid-table quality group. They are however, completely shorn of confidence and, it has to be said, not being well marshalled by the manager. There is no method about Hibs’ play and the players at times do not appear to understand what their jobs are. They look lost and the man directing them on the bench equally, if not more so. If I were to hazard a guess – and that’s all it is – I’d say that Terry Butcher has completely run out of ideas quite some time ago. He appears dumbstruck as to what to do next with everything he knows, which sadly appears to be a little limited rather than expansive, having failed miserably.
The full-time whistle blew and I honestly rarely recall feeling so absolutely gutted after ninety minutes of a football match. It was a special visit home for me this time but that wasn’t really the source of upset. It was much more to do with what this proud football club has now descended to. Hibs have no god-given right to success, heaven knows we understand that after all these years but the position the club is now in is just plain wrong. Mismanagement, neglect, lack of interest from above, all of these things but don’t now blame a heavily disgruntled set of supporters – even though I have recently stated my two-pen’orth on the need for us all to get behind this club in the remaining games.
So, on to two legs against either Hamilton or Falkirk it is then. Characteristically, many fans have us already in the Championship before a ball is kicked. I can’t blame them, only so many beatings, disappointments and having hopes dashed can one take. Common sense and a little study of the state of play shows us that Hibs simply cannot score goals yet equally will always let goals in. They can’t do the serious business at either end of the pitch where it really counts. For me the best chance would be for Hibs to go away from home in the first leg and attack their Championship opposition, with the chance of leaving a reasonable target to achieve back at Easter Road. With the important and influential Kevin Thomson back in the side, pulling the strings, providing the ‘glue’ and fighting for the jersey I happen to believe it can still be done. Hibs need to rely on experience though and this means the inclusion of the likes of Craig, the creative threat of Cairney and the craft of Heffernan at the sharp end. If Hibs are to save their status and for this to act as a conduit to a new, brighter future for the club the seasoned professionals are going to have to stand up here and be willingly counted.