A Fresh Start: Hibs are playing football

Yes, that’s right, the blog title is A Fresh Start: Hibs are playing football.

Two months ago I sat in my seat at Easter Road hurting like hell because we’d just been relegated by Hamilton.  They were going up to the Premiership and we were heading off down to the Championship.  Although not entirely unexpected given the latter part of the season, we had thought we’d thrown ourselves a life line by beating Hamilton at New Douglas Park.  It seemed simple enough to bring them back to Easter Road and finish the job.

However, the team that ran out on May 25th to “finish the job” lacked absolutely everything.  They had no fight, no passion, no purpose.  They were being guided by a negative manager.  They couldn’t string a pass together and resorted to playing hoofball (a term that every Hibee used at some point in the latter part of last season I’m sure).  They were not talking to each other and in the end Hamilton took it on penalties.

It was a horrible, horrible day.  It was very hard to ever imagine that we could recover from that.  The team was a shambles, the support had turned against them, the manager and the board.  Even the thought of a new CEO in Leeann Dempster wasn’t enough.  It was very hard to believe that Hibs could be turned around, that season 2014/15 might be anything other than a shambles.  The thought going through my mind as I dragged myself along London Road was if this is the team we’ve got next season then we’re going to be crucified.

The days that followed were hard.  Butcher began swinging the axe, players were gone.  Something that irked many because, yes, many of those going should be gone but was Butcher the right man to be doing it? Various conversations I had with people saw a split.  Some people thought Butcher should have been first to go, other believed Butcher should be given time.  I swayed on the subject.

However, Butcher soon left the club after it was clear he wasn’t good for the future of the club and it did kind of feel that there was a collective sigh of relief.  We were in a horrible situation.  No manager, very little players, disillusioned supporters and a rumbling campaign to remove chairman Rod Petrie.  The forthcoming season felt like it was going to be a nightmare.

Speculation grew over who the new manager would be.  Someone old? Someone new?

The negativity of Hibs was felt across social media.  People tried to be positive but it was hard.

Small things were happening though.  People were reporting that they’d been in touch with the club and received replies to their queries in a short space of time.  I include myself in that.  I had an answer to my query within 4 hours of asking.  Not only that, Leeann Dempster was answering emails herself as well.  That was a sign that something was changing within the club.  Fan groups were meeting with Leeann and others and she answered their questions, spoke to them about their fears.  Although we may not have liked everything Leeann or the club was saying to us they were communicating with us and that’s a big change for Hibs.

The speculation about a manager ended with the signing of Alan Stubbs, not as a manager but in the role of head coach.  A slightly surprising announcement for some.  Stubbsy came to us from Everton as the under-21 coach, and he also came with the backing of Everton boss Roberto Martinez.

Since then the club has worked at building links with supporters, worked at building a good back room staff and worked at bringing in new players.  Not at the rate that most would like but the rebuild had certainly begun.

An air of positivity returned.  Four pre-season friendly matches, 10 goals scored, none conceded.  One seagull slightly dazed.  Four away games, three wins, one 0-0 draw.  Vale of Leithen, Berwick Rangers, Dunfermline and Stirling Albion our opponents.  Perhaps not the most testing of opponents in some cases but the comments from supporters attending those games (in huge numbers) was the Hibs were now playing at different game of football.  A few short weeks with Stubbsy and the team were actually passing the ball well, hoofball a thing of the past.

It was pleasing to read those comments, to know that proper changes were happening and that there might just be light at the end of the tunnel.

I haven’t been able to make any of the away friendlies, despite intentions.  Other things have got in the way.  I was able to make the home friendly today (27 July) against Dundee United.

Insanely, in the morning I felt nervous and jittery as if it was cup final day.  I went on line to re-read some of the positive comments I have read over the past couple of weeks.  I worried that playing against Dundee United was going to be a tough test.  After all, they’re a premiership team and well, we’re not.  I told myself to just go and see what was what.

Armed with season ticket I headed off to Easter Road for the 2PM kick off.  I headed to the bus stop, climbing aboard with other Hibby’s who were actually talking about looking forward to the game.  Good to hear, for a change.

For the bus journey I put my headphones in, plugged them into my phone and spent most of it shuffling through songs I just didn’t want to listen to.  Shuffle on my iPhone hates me and rarely lands on anything that I want to listen to, so it was something of a surprise that as I was crossing the Bridge of Doom towards Easter Road it actually shuffled onto Sunshine on Leith.

Sunshine on Leith iTunes

Feeling like that was a sign I sashayed over the bridge, and headed off to the turnstiles.  I felt sure that my season ticket wouldn’t scan and there would be some drama getting into the ground but my ticket did scan, the turnstile released and away we go.

Sort of.

As I walked forward I realised my bag had caught in the turnstile.  How did I realise? Well, the choking sensation of the strap around my neck was the main clue.   A female steward realised what had happened and asked if I was OK.  Well, I was laughing but also slightly worried.  She went to release the turnstile but I managed to tug the bag free and turned around to find another steward laughing.  I laughed too.  ‘Great start this is’ I said, more laughter.  I have to admit, it was funny.  The guy behind me didn’t know what to do.  Swipe his season ticket? Wait? Run off to another turnstile?

Drama done with I got my tea and headed up to the stand.  As Hibby’s know, despite season tickets being allowed today the seating was unreserved so technically if someone was already sitting in your seat there wasn’t much you could do about it.   Yes, you could glare at them for 90 minutes but that was about it.  Thankfully, no one was in mine and I sat down.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, if I’m honest, yes, lots of positivity from the previous four friendlies.  This was Hibs at home though.  Stage fright was the norm for Hibs at home, well, last season anyway.

For once I was actually early to Easter Road and the teams were still out warming up and it was nice to see the support clap the Hibs team back into the changing room.  Then the applause for them running out for the first time at home, in their new (controversial) home strip.  Most of the crowd stood to applaud.

Hibs were trialling goalkeeper Mark Oxley today.  Always a bit nervy about trialling goalies.

I settled back in my seat to see what would happen and I have to say, I was not disappointed.  I had been told that Hibs were passing well and they really were.  Not just passing but passing accurately.  Looking for each other, talking to each other and stringing together passes with confidence.  Last season’s Hit and Hope was gone.  These were thought out, well-timed and accurate passes.  Hibs were all over Dundee United who really struggled to have any possession at all.  When they did get it they were easily dispossessed by an invigorated Hibernian.

A good passing, on the ground style of play was not the only positive to be seen.  I didn’t recognise Lewis Stevenson at first but there is one player who has worked on his fitness over the last couple of months.  He’s looking a lot better and playing better.  Of course, he’s probably had his confidence restored by Stubbsy as well.

Alex Harris completely lost his confidence last season following his injury but it’s well on its way back now.  Only a very decent save from Czerniak stopped him from scoring a cracker of a goal which would have seen his confidence go through the roof but he played very well today and was nipping around Dundee United players with ease, accepting passes confidently and just looking so much better than he did at the end of last season.  He also took Man of the Match today.  Not necessarily the best player but certainly the one who has come on the most.

Apart from a revised style of play, which is brilliant to see, the team are full of confidence, playing well and playing as a team.  Lots of communication and they all know where each other are.  Our new signings look pretty good.  David Gray seems pretty solid and there is tons of effort from el Alagui, who netted and had the Hibs support on their feet cheering but the goal was disallowed.  Bloody offside rule!  Scott Allan was a 73rd minute sub so not enough time to see him really.

We did lose the game 0-1 but we didn’t lose the game because we were terrible.  Dundee United, who really struggled against us for the most part, scored after we made a 6-man change in the 73rd minute.  We didn’t readjust quickly enough, got confused and were a bit of mess, Dundee United scored in the 76th.  Nothing should be taken from that though, we can’t make changes like that in the league but Stubbsy was doing what he absolutely should have, giving players a run out.  I reckon Stubbsy has a good starting eleven in mind and I can’t argue with it.

We weren’t perfect and could definitely take about 3/4 more players.  We do need to attack more and our defence could do with another strong player.  We need to secure a goalie.  Oxley was good but not really tested.  He was given the full 90 though, I won’t be disappointed if he signs.

Liam Craig is looking good again.  I’m not convinced about him being captain but that was a Butcher decision and I think that if Stubbs wasn’t keen on it he would change it.  It may still change once the team settles.  Craig obviously offers something in leadership to the team that Stubbs sees.

Hanlon, Handling and Robertson were fairly solid.

The whole set up looks improved and clearly Stubbsy is making a difference in the changing room.  It’s obvious that he and the back room team are working individually with players on their performance and that training is going well.  I won’t quote players individually but over the last couple of weeks the players have been commenting on Twitter how good training has been, tiring, but good.

What a difference two months make.

What a brilliant difference.

The end result? Hibs are playing football.

A fresh start? It definitely is.