Wishing and Hoping.
As I blogged twice, with great feeling, in the run up to the Cup Final, it seems only right that I should compete the trilogy with a final, reflective, blog on the horror for Hibs supporters that was May 19th 2012. As with the precursors, I will make it honest as I can and risk riling readers who may not agree with my feelings. Such is life.
Firstly, congratulations to Hearts. Without ever having to be brilliant, they did what they had to do and comprehensively beat us; they showed fight and determination – as they always do, and a few moments of flair. It will have been a magnificently joyful weekend for their support and it’s hard to grudge them it – especially given the uncertainty that hangs around their future due to the machinations of their owner.
The moments of contention? Black’s early challenge on Griffiths, the penalty decision and sending off, the referee’s overall display? All of them irrelevant – to try and seek any excuses from that lot would be like blaming the waiter who failed to polish the cutlery for the sinking of the Titanic. Hibs didn’t play anything like well enough to get anything out of the game. The defence was hesitant, the midfield overrun and devoid of ideas – even when they did have the ball, and though Griffiths tried, our forwards have neither the awareness nor guile to overcome the lack of service from their team mates.
Going through to Hampden, I felt we had a slim chance of a victory – if Hearts were off form and if all of Hibs ‘big’ players – McPake and Hanlon, Osborne and Claros, Griffiths and O’Connor – were on top form. It never looked like happening.
Truth to tell, my weak optimism vanished around 1pm, as I watched the Hibs Team Coach arrive at the Stadium. To a man, the players looked rattled; it was quite shocking; they looked like they’d witnessed a murder at the team hotel. I tried to tell myself it was just that they were focused. Actually, I think it was the predictable mindset of a group of players, many of whom until January had either not been playing regular football or had been playing in reserve team football down in the English Midlands, suddenly realising they had to appear in a national Final in front of 52000 supporters.
Rationally, Hibs results against Hearts this season, the relative positions in the league, and the manner of play of both sides throughout the year, made the result not unexpected – though the final margin and the lack of ability of the Hibs team to even get in the game was a bit overwhelming.
The build up was colourful and, as I had hoped, a reminder to Scotland, and in particular the media, that you don’t actually need the Old Firm to put on an impressive show, and that great passion doesn’t necessarily predicate great violence and hatred.
So – as every Hibernian supporter has been wondering since, where does that leave Hibs?
Well – grim as the situation seems at present, it’s kind of ‘as you were’. Younger supporters will always be extra devastated by a result such as Saturday’s. the fact that it’s against Hearts and will be brought up for the foreseeable future makes it hurt even more. I remember after Turnbull’s Tornadoes were hammered 6-1 by Celtic in the Cup Final I couldn’t speak to anyone for days – and that was a far superior side to the current Hibs line up. For all that, we still beat Celtic in the League Cup Final a mere six months later and I’m not sure that the previous 6-1 mauling didn’t make that win all the sweeter.
Age, of course, lends perspective.
The truth is that Hibs have always been underachievers – or perhaps more accurately mercurial performers. How did the Famous Five team lose a final to Clyde? How did the Tornadoes win only one major trophy? How can a team with such a notable history in the game have so few championships and cups?
Well – it’s because it’s what we do.
Hearts roll on, rarely magnificent to watch but achieving a general consistency. Hibs flatter to deceive, occasionally hit stellar heights, and then, traditionally, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They deserve their position in Scottish football as much for their history, their innovations and their status as a Capital city club. Performances on the field, taken over the past 130 years tend to suggest their biggest successes – the league trophies, European progress, league cup wins – have been the exception rather than the rule.
It’s not, as our city rivals like to claim, a case of big team/wee team. It’s more a case of ethos. Hibs’ attendances fluctuate more or less according to how well the team are doing, the Hearts support is less volatile. Long term committed supporters make up the base of Hearts support, Hibs seem to attract incomers, students and casual supporters alongside a smaller base of committed fans.
I’m quite happy with this. Partly because there’s nothing I can do to change it, and partly because I prefer to hang on for the highlights than support predictability. Like the clubs’ identities, it all depends on your personality traits I suppose.
Of course, when the Hibs are in the midst of one of their periodic depressions, it’s grim, particularly for those supporters who have unrealistic or unfounded expectations. Hibs came close to closure in the late 80s when there was so little cash available the team arrived for fixtures in minibuses. The business decisions taken by Sir Tom Farmer to, as he put it, ‘secure the club for future generations’ have proved sound – especially when the plight of other clubs is considered. However, the cost cutting does have implications. Even though Hibs have consistently remained as one of the top spenders outside the Old Firm, player quality has suffered. All the right things have been done – ground completed, youth academy established, infrastructure sound.
However, I don’t suppose it’s easy for today’s younger fans to appreciate moves made for the benefit of future generations. They see Motherwell doing well, teams like St Mirren finishing ahead of us, and they question the running of the club. There’s a similar scenario at Aberdeen, where their success under Alex Ferguson has turned into a long lasting millstone.
Actually, many of the Hibs’ fans do more than question the running of the club. They boycott Easter Rd, they rant at players and officials on the internet, some become downright offensive in their comments, and many routinely hurl abuse at players during games. . They claim the right to do so because ‘they pay their money’. In their eyes, Hibs owe them better than what they receive, and they are angry, let down and being cheated.
This indignation is understandable, but wrong headed. First of all, by its very nature, sport is unpredictable – that’s supposed to be what makes it so addictive. How long has it taken Manchester City or Chelsea, with theoretically unlimited budgets, to buy the success of this season? Certainly a big war chest to spend can attract better quality players – but if the chemistry between the players -and between the team and the manager- doesn’t work out, success will not follow. Ultimately, all the board can do is put the infrastructure in place and try their best to get the right manager to instigate that chemistry – a notoriously difficult task. When it doesn’t work, and it hasn’t at Hibs for 4 or 5 years now – the results, in more ways than one, can be grim. The feeling of frustration only grows when competitors get it right – as for instance Motherwell have with Stuart McCall this season, and as Hibs did with Tony Mowbray half a decade ago.
Unfortunately for Hibs, the fans’ patience has been stretching to breaking point; in modern day parlance – our fans DO ‘do walking away’. Attendances have slumped and, with 30 minutes to go at the Final, around half of the support had left the stadium. This is not an attack on those fans who vote with their feet – everybody supports in their own way and have a right to do so; it’s not about who’s a ‘real’ fan and who isn’t. But the fans’ attitudes are critical in a club’s development.
Although I mentioned that sport is unpredictable, you can narrow that unpredictability. It’s not difficult to contend that if Hibs had a gate of 20,000 every week, they would usually finish in the top 4 or 5 in the league; they would have the funds to attract and pay better players and they would have an income/attendance around twice that of at least half the SPL. In addition, Easter Rd would become a stadium which would be intimidating for opponents. However, some supporters, possibly the majority of those who would claim allegiance to Hibs, no longer attend games, because Hibs aren’t very good – thus prolonging the slump.
Absent supporters don’t like to hear this; they think it is daft to blame fans for underachievement, but, at the same time, they suggest Hibs should spend more while withholding money from their income stream.
These are hard economic times and it’s understandable that if attending Easter Rd is not enjoyable, the season ticket will be one of the expenses that is trimmed. It’s not a matter of blame either, because, as I said before, fans have the right to attend or not, to support or not. It is, though, a matter of fact: more fans = better players.
To be fair, it also the board’s responsibility to tackle this problem, to build confidence that something can be done. Knowing the potential support for Hibs, it’s frustrating to see the hard core of 9000 turning up on a regular basis; it’s a real chicken and egg situation: you get big crowds from success, you get success from big crowds.
You would have to question Hibs’ PR facility. The club gets far more poor press than favourable, and there must be a reason for that. I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, so it’s dangerous and unacceptable to posit solutions, but page after page of negative headlines and articles are not likely to entice the crowds back. The buzz that was engendered around the club during Mowbray’s time has vanished entirely; gloom seems to be the default position. It’s Pat Fenlon’s task, with the support of the Board, to change that.
The established route would be as follows:
In the close season, buy two or three experienced professionals with the correct attitude to provide the spine of the team; work hard with the youth players and maybe entice some prospects from other clubs with the likelihood of first team action. Work hard to mold a team with a shape and style that is pleasing to the punters – who, even in the absence of immediate success – will probably be enticed back.
And, finally, put some real clout into honest communication by football people with the fans. My own choice would be Stuart Lovell – a practiced communicator with a club link who would have the confidence of the support and can tell it like it is. You could throw in Pat Nevin to the equation and, by dint of good and thorough communication, flatten the rumours and half truths that the messageboard warriors pedal about Hibernian. Frankly, current efforts appear amateurish and part time – their lack of success is the proof of this. Hibs need to take PR seriously; in this day and age it’s crucial. I do often wonder if Tom Farmer’s Kwik Fit would have gained the same level of success had its PR been as poor.
No easy answers, no guarantees and a suggestion that, just maybe, the support need to have a look at themselves. Abandoning Hibs, abusing the staff, and leaving early may be the ‘right’ of supporters, but none of it will promote success.
As for me, well, ultimately, Saturday’s sore result makes no difference. Of course I was gutted – but come August I’ll be there, 42 year old scarf round my neck, optimistic as ever, loving the matches, proud to support them, wishing and hoping!