To be honest, a victory over the current
side can hardly be
hailed as a turning point. The home side’s
right-back, Jim Fenlon, wouldn’t look out of place in my Monday night
seven-a-sides, for a start. The Staggies
are a mess in a shambles wrapped up in a catastrophe, to paraphrase Churchill. Ross
Still, Hibernian will welcome anything remotely positive right now. If the second half of last season was a nightmare, then they still haven’t woken up yet; six games into the Championship season, they have managed only two wins and six points. They’ve lost to the likes of part-timers Alloa, Their victories came against Cowdenbeath thanks to two late goals, and
Livingston, where the decisive goal was a punt by
goalkeeper Mark Oxley.
When folk talked about the playoffs being the absolute minimum that the Hibees should aim for, they were talking about the promotion playoffs; at the moment they are seventh in the table, only a point above the relegation playoff place. The two other ‘big guns’ in the division, Hearts and Rangers, are miles ahead of them already. While it’s not entirely unexpected that Hibs trail both their local rivals, who have augmented their promising young squad with some more experience or quality, and a Rangers side which still boasts the second highest wage bill in the country, the fact that they sit below Raith Rovers, Queen of the South, Livingston and Alloa is rather galling.
Add in the loss of star striker Farid El Alagui to a shredded achilles tendon, and it’s clear that rookie boss Alan Stubbs does not have his problems to seek. Even at this early stage, there are concerns that he isn’t up to the job.
And one can understand that. It’s clear that Stubbs’ predecessor, Terry Butcher, shattered team spirit around Easter Road. Whilst there was an almighty summer clearout, the club held on to a number of players who have previously demonstrated competence at top flight level – Paul Hanlon, Liam Craig, Alex Harris and Sam Stanton are examples. But performances have been generally dreadful, and the lack of confidence and heart seems to have been carried over from May. In attack, even before El Alagui got crocked, there seemed to be a lack of a plan, a paucity of creativity. In last weekend’s defeat to Queen of the South, they looked utterly bereft of ideas after conceding an early goal.
In some ways, it is reminiscent of the worst Rangers performances of the last two years, with the apparent assumption that the ability of the players will shine through against inferior opponents regardless. But good as some of the Hibs players are, none of them are the equals of, say, Kris Boyd or Nicky Law. Perhaps the mooted move for Leigh Griffiths would make the difference, but a reliance on short-term fixes like this are what got the club into this mess in the first place.
And yet, the situation is not actually all that grim. The win in Dingwall might have heralded a new dawn, as it marked the deployment of a back three for the first time. Stubbs used experienced central defender Liam Fontaine in that position with great success, shoring up the backline far better than in previous weeks. The performance of goalscorer Dominique Malonga was hugely reassuring, especially given veteran Paul Heffernan’s steep decline.
And, as I stated above, it always seemed pretty likely that Hearts and Rangers would be the top two sides in the league (though not necessarily in that order). The playoff system means that finishing third or fourth in the table is really much of a muchness. If Stubbs can haul this bunch into even fourth place, then all they need is to find some proper form in the six games that follow, and they’ll go up after all.
Easy as that, huh? Of course it isn’t, but it’s a reflection of how the new management (both at squad and board level) still have plenty of time to focus on sorting things out for the long term. A return for
may well be detrimental in that
regard, unless he was planning to stay beyond Christmas. Griffiths
So Hibs’ situation is far from bleak. There’s plenty of time for a turnaround yet. That said, they have a trip to Rangers on Monday night to look forward to. It may yet get a bit worse before it gets better.