Here we go…….
Another season looms – a scary 56 years since I first saw Hibs as a wean, and the 42nd without a break since I returned to Edinburgh in 1970. In all that time I can say honestly that I have never felt anything but joy to be a Hibs supporter; why would I want to support anyone else? They are my team, my family’s team, and I love them to bits.
Victories? We’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention……
Of course, I love it when we win – league cups, derbies, games, programme prizes – anything really; you love sport because you like winning, but, if I’m honest, I love going to see Hibs full stop. Half a century of attending games gives you perspective. I understand that the supporters of most football clubs, for most of their lives, will see their club win nothing. Some surprising clubs have never won anything. Ever. It’s the reality of competition that, while many dogs have their day (and for Hibs it appears to have been the Famous Five Years), most of the time, fans need to be reconciled to failure – relative or otherwise. Younger fans lack the patience or long term view to see that – they want success, now, and preferably repeated on an annual basis. However they define that success, it is nearly always better than what is happening now.
So, the last few years of slump for Hibs have been hard to take for the younger generation, but most of us oldies have hunkered down, shaken our heads sagely, and muttered: “It was ever thus”.
Of course,, this doesn’t mean we don’t get frustrated, angry or just plain crazy – at some of our team’s woeful performances, or in times of great misery like the Cup Final in May – but, in a strange way, that’s part of the fun of being a supporter, rather than someone who is only interested in seeing a team that always wins.
It’s an approach that also begets a certain optimism – the triumph of hope over experience, so, as I preview this season, I’m not in the wrist slashing mode that some of the online warriors seem to be about the Cabbage and Ribs.
Do I have any rationale behind that? Well, yes.
I have actually seen all of Hibs pre-season games ( and watching the famous ‘first to wear the green’ in the depths of east Berlin is certainly not a scenario I ever foretold in my youth) and so I have some knowledge of where the team is at in its rebuilding. I’m also conceited enough to think that, after a long career in teaching and in senior management in schools, I have some understanding of what is needed to make a group of young folk pull together to gain success.
So, for those who haven’t seen Hibs so far this season, here are my views after 6 games.
We knew last season that Hibs had major problems: their two strikers were hampered by poor and unimaginative service from midfield and each of them, for different reasons, were not fully focused on playing football. The midfield itself was lightweight and the players too similar; in football parlance they never ‘bossed a game’. The defence gradually improved under Fenlon, but without a commanding keeper, never looked entirely comfortable. Overall we were a team that was too narrow in the way it played and lacking any sort of vision.
However, the major problem in the team was what you might call chemistry. Good teams play for each other, the effect of the whole is greater than the sum parts. Between poor attitudes and enforced short term loanees, there were too many people in the Hibs side who were not just that bothered about their team mates, and it showed. It is illuminating to think that McPake’s never say die attitude when he arrived was hailed as wonderful by the support, but, in reality, we need a team full of characters with that attitude.
So Fenlon’s task, and it’s a huge one, is not just to recruit ‘better players’, but to construct a team with the right chemistry – as Steve Lomas and Stuart McCall did last season, leading to St Johnstone and Motherwell’s success. God knows it’s difficult enough on a limited budget to find ‘good’ players in the positions you need, but adding on to that requirement the need for them to be ‘the right sort’ makes recruitment very difficult – but there is no other way to do it. The atmosphere at Hibs has been rank for some time now and it’s because we’ve had the wrong sort of players – some talented some not, but none really bothered about the football club.
What I saw in the pre-season games was encouraging.
The team is acquiring some dig and some pride; there is evidence of players playing for each other. They are also holding their shape – they look like they know what they are supposed to be doing – even if they can’t always manage it! This is a massive improvement as Hibs have looked lost on the field for most of the last two years at least. I suspect this development comes fROm players listening to Fenlon and O’Brien and being prepared to do what they are told. Crucial.
The young players who were introduced on tour – Handling, Coldwell and Stanton – look like energetic and talented prospects and brought a positivity to the side whenever they played. When you add Scott smith to those three it’s a mystery why the common acceptance is that ‘Hibs renowned youth system has stalled of late’ – don’t think so. Caldwell, in particular has quick feet and a good finish and I like Stanton’s wee touch of arrogance.
Williams is a steady proficient keeper who from his first game was shouting non-stop and organizing his defence. Hallelujah! In addition, young Callum Antell showed enough to show he won’t let anyone down as back up keeper.
Clancy is a good professional with fine technical skills who puts in a good shift, whilst Cairney is a wee buzz bomb who never stops running, gets forward well and raises the input around him. McPake looks like going from strength to strength whilst Griffiths return, if he can show some maturity – on and off the pitch – could prove invaluable.
Hanlon looks more assured while Stephens continues to be erratic – always looking like he should be better than he actually is. I thought Maybury looked like a steady squad defender and gave options right across the back, though it now looks like we aren’t signing him.
In midfield, Lewis Stephenson is well worth a squad place but brings little commanding to the game; Jorge Claros is clearly a good footballer and the hope is that he needs an enforcer around him to give him the time to produce the killer passes. Time will tell. Maybe the just announced signing of Gary Deegan will help his development. Ivan Sproule is well loved by most supporters but was disappointing on his return to the club last season. There is, however, no doubt about his commitment to Hibs and he could be an important part of that chemistry. He showed increased, if erratic, energy on tour and of course scored a cracker against Huddersfield. He’ll give his all if required, but it might be as an impact sub that he will offer most. Callum Booth has become a bit of an enigma; maybe left midfield, in competition with the entertaining Pa Kujabi, will be his best berth. We can only hope that Wotherspoon regains some consistency.
I like Eoin Doyle and think he has ability. He needs to continue bulking up though and impose himself more on defences.
So, as Pat Fenlon, Rod Petrie, the world and its dog know, Hibs need a big centre forward, a pacy winger and a solid midfielder, hopefully with vision. Deegan may be the answer to this last requirement. I wouldn’t be surprised if we achieved all of that before the end of August. Another centre half might be a luxury we have to do without, given a number of back four options.
However, even with no more signings, I think Hibs will do better this year. You pick up an atmosphere on tour, we shared a plane with the players from Brussels to Berlin, you notice things like McPake sitting next to Griffiths and, as skipper, having a wee walk up and down the plane, checking on his team mates. There’s a quiet professionalism about Fenlon and O’Sullivan that encourages me.
It’s a huge task Fenlon has – to turn around the culture at a club – but I think he will achieve it. The bigger task is instilling patience in a support who have had a bellyful of disappointment over the past three years or so.
Unlike many, apparently, I am confident that Hibs have the right folk in control. I think Fenlon is a winner and is already bringing the right sort of players to the club. I know Petrie and the Board are unpopular, but, frankly, after the summer we’ve just had, if anyone thinks fiscal rectitude is the wrong way for a club to go, well, they want their head looking!
My prediction: I think there will be more signings, I believe the squad atmosphere will help these players overachieve, and I take Hibs to surprise a few folk and come 5th or 6th.
My team, as the squad is currently configured:
Clancy, McPake, Stephens, Hanlon
Sproule, Claros, Cairney, Deegan Doyle
Subs: Caldwell Wotherspoon, Stanton, Handling, O’Hanlon, Kujabi, Smith