IN 2014, when Hibernian were relegated from the Scottish top flight under Terry Butcher, the Hibees were seventh in the table when the league split, yet managed to fall down the play-off trapdoor by season’s end, resulting in three years of lower-tier football. Now, in 2022, Hibs are suffering their worst top flight campaign since the infamous Butcher era and are in more or less exactly the same position.
There are some parallels with 2014—now, as then, the green jerseys are shot shy, easily bullied in matches and the side lacks physical presence. However, what’s really missing from the team’s recent performances is a bit of steel and determination.
When Pat Fenlon left Easter Road late in 2013, the Irishman had Hibs safely in mid-table, only for a new manager to come in and lead the team to relegation. This season, when Jack Ross was relieved of his duties, Hibs were about to play in a cup final and looked to be near certainties for a Europa League place. Now, with 15 points to play for in the bottom six fixtures, the Hibees sit just eight points above the dreaded relegation play-off spot.
The ignominy of a bottom-six finish is countered somewhat by the fact that Shaun Maloney’s men are about to play yet another big match at Hampden in the Scottish Cup, but were Hibs to lose yet another big Hampden encounter to their city rivals, the fact that the second part of this season’s league campaign has been bitterly disappointing and not good enough for the Hibee faithful will be laid bare for all to see.
Maloney has now led Hibs in 18 matches. Three of those games were in the Scottish Cup, all of which were victories. Of the 15 league matches, three have been won, six have been drawn and there have been six defeats—that’s relegation form. 12 goals have been scored to 16 conceded. Five of those matches were goal-less draws.
Maloney and Gary Caldwell are amid a rebuilding job at Easter Road, with a completely new continental playing style being introduced to the club. Hibs, not for the first time, are trying something new; fairly new ownership, a rookie manager, new player recruitment streams —partly because of Brexit and its Bosman implications—and trying to lower the average squad age. All of these things take time, but time waits for no man. The new manager seems to have made Hibs a worse team and he and his coaching staff must rectify that immediately. Most Hibs fans are open to giving their new manager time to sign his own players to suit his vision of the team’s new playing style. If Maloney can do that and improve next season then the team’s poor league form since January will soon be forgotten. The problem with that rationale is simple—there’s the slim possibility that it could all blow up in everybody’s face by the end of May, like in 2014. On paper at least, Hibs are too good to go down, but football’s recent history is full of instances of teams who were ‘too good to go down,’ who did exactly that.
A victory over Hearts at Hampden in the Scottish Cup semi-final, along with two wins right at the start of the bottom six campaign, would show the fans that the decision to change manager last year wasn’t a bad one. A derby cup-win would make Maloney and his players cult heroes among all Hibbies and would lay the groundwork for a fresh start next season.
Hibs’ last match before the league split was a 3-1 defeat to Hearts at Tynecastle, a game in which Hibernian put in their weakest performance in Gorgie in many a year. Drey Wright gave the Cabbage an early lead but a double from Andy Halliday and a strike by Stephen Kingsley sealed an easy win for Hearts. Hearts were hungrier, more direct and seemed to relish the physical battle more—a theme common in many Edinburgh derbies since 1983. That defeat meant that Hibs would play bottom six football for the first time since 2014.
One week earlier, Harry Clarke scored for the green jerseys in a 1-1 draw at home to Dundee Utd, a match in which the Hibees were denied a stonewall penalty. Before the international break, Hibs were routed 3-1 by Aberdeen up at Pittodrie, with Ryan Porteous being sent-off.
Success at Hampden against Hearts in the cup and a strong start to the bottom six campaign will steady the ship at Easter Road—another cup defeat to Hearts and a relegation battle will raise serious questions about the suitability of the current managerial team at Easter Road. Hibs fans, myself included, want Maloney’s time in Leith to be successful. When next I write this column, we’ll have a much better idea of whether or not that will come to pass.