Once again the Scottish cup has eluded Hibs. A home tie against lower league opposition who have not scored this calendar year was always going to be a match only Hibs could lose. Add into the equation one of Raith’s best players being on loan from Easter Road and many others in their squad and the manager being Jambos and there was inevitability about Hibs demise. If good things come to those who wait Hibs fans are due something pretty special.
Credit to Raith for a determined and skilled performance including some inspired goal keeping which saw them deservedly through to the next round but in truth Hibs have only themselves to blame. Celtic had just been knocked out as the game kicked off at Easter Road and with Rangers and Hearts a shadow of their former selves there may not have been a better opportunity to bring the Scottish cup back to Leith for the first time in 112 years. But a fourth defeat in a row has seen the Terry Butcher revolution stall.
From back to front it was a wretched display. The returning Paul Hanlon looked like a player short of match practice and forgetting how much his form had improved under a new manager. The rest of the back four were no better. Defensively Hibs were a shambles and have now conceded 10 goals in their last 3 home games. Alex Harris still seems short of sharpness and a long way off the player who sparkled on last year’s run to the final. James Collins, for all his hard work does not finish or have the first touch or pace to justify his significant transfer fee but in many ways captain Liam Craig is the biggest problem. Butcher is woefully misusing him as a defensive midfielder. A prolific goal scorer and creator as an attacking midfielder at St Johnstone his performance and distribution was poor once again from a deeper role. The set up play in Paul Heffernan’s great but spurned chance to force a replay gave a reminder of what Craig can produce in the attacking third but if Butcher requires a defensive midfielder it is hard to see why the exiled Kevin Thomson isn’t a better option. The former club captain and Scotland internationals game may not be perfectly suited to Butcher’s tactics of getting the ball forward as quickly as possible but Saturday’s game was screaming out for his composure and skill.
Hibs did have chances to see of Raith. As well as Heffernan’s opportunity Hibs also had a strong penalty claim turned down when Duncan Watmore seemed to be impeded. With the referee ignoring an offside flag for Raith’s second goal it is the third home game in a row Hibs have been the victim of suspect officiating. However the lack of urgency in Hibs play until far too late in the encounter was unforgivable. Butcher certainly has his work cut out, especially as he is still very much working with his predecessor’s squad.
Encouragingly the two players he has introduced to the first team were the only two who shone on Saturday. Sam Stanton continued his emergence as an outstanding talent with a wonderful first half goal and the on loan Duncan Watmore dazzled at times on the wing. His pace and directness caused Raith all sorts of problems and he appears to be exactly what Hibs need at this moment in time. However, loan signings are part of the problem. For too long Hibs have seeked a short term fix to their problems. For example the club were far too happy to let Leigh Griffiths carry them through last season instead of worrying about what would happen if he departed. What is needed is a long term strategy. Backing Butcher is the first step. Following the example of Alex Harris and tying down a core of the first team, especially its younger members to long term contracts is the next. Hibs need to step away from overpaid journey men and short term loans. With Hearts soon to join Rangers outside the top flight there is a chance to establish the club as a major force in Scottish football. Long term planning is needed.
Even in such difficult times Hibs fans need to take their share of the blame. Our wretched home form is far more than coincidence or an inability to break teams down. Hibees may turn out in greater numbers than many supporters in Scotland but we are not a tolerant bunch. Frustration at poor performances is understandable but howls of derision will not improve them. Many say the team has to ignite the fans but it is a two way street. Encouragement rather than abuse would certainly improve what happens on the pitch. It may also explain why players so proficient at other SPL clubs seem so poor at Hibs. The atmosphere at Easter Road frequently ranges from silent to poisonous and numerous opposition players and managers have picked up on it.
Butcher has promised to drop those responsible for the dismal cup exit. The real cost of the defeat could be far more significant. Despite what the club will tell us Hibs season is over. Sneaking into the top 6 excites no one, especially at the expense of a final derby before Heart’s relegation. Attendances will drop as will season ticket sales, swollen by two successive cup final appearances. Terry Butcher’s transfer budget will be slashed. He has described developing Hibs as a climb. It certainly looks like an uphill struggle.