Hibs: Pressure on Easter Road hierarchy after season of turmoil

Coach David Gray (left) is once again taking charge of the Hibs first team after Shaun Maloney's exit
Coach David Gray (left) is once again taking charge of the Hibs first team after Shaun Maloney’s exit

For the second time this season, David Gray is stepping in as caretaker manager at Hibernian following the surprise sackings of Jack Ross and now Shaun Maloney.

Ross departed in December after a run of seven defeats in nine league outings, having steered the club to third place last season and to back-to-back cup finals.

That former captain Gray was in charge for the League Cup final loss to Celtic 10 days later demonstrated how ruthless owner Ron Gordon could be.

Despite an unconvincing start to his first managerial post, it was widely thought that Maloney would be afforded time to turn things round since Gordon was instrumental in the appointment.

But no, the Peru-born, US-based businessman, who took over at Easter Road in the summer of 2019, has again shown a cut-throat streak, casting out the former Belgium assistant just 19 games into a three-and-a -half year contract.

Ex-skipper Ian Murray, now manager at Airdrieonians, told BBC Scotland: “I can understand it in terms of timing. They obviously want to get ready for the summer, pre-season and the longer transfer window. But four months is nothing.

“What I struggle to comprehend is how can you put ideas across to a board of directors, if it was that, and they think it’s good and then four months later they think it’s not a good idea any more.”

Did summer complacency lead to slump?

Gordon, who has been conspicuously absent of late, is due to face the media on Wednesday and many fans are pointing the finger of blame his way.

After their best finish in 16 years last season, Hibs failed to build from a position of strength, with the free transfer of defensive midfielder Jake Doyle-Hayes the only significant new arrival over the summer.

Late loan deals were arranged for striker James Scott and defender Nathan Wood, with the former yet to register a goal or assist and the latter returning to Middlesbrough after one solitary appearance.

Sporting director Graeme Mathie carried the can, losing his job in September. Gordon then installed his 29-year-old son as head of recruitment.

Leeann Dempster had left as chief executive in late 2020 and her replacement, Ben Kensell, was not appointed until July 2021.

Dempster was responsible for hiring popular head coaches Alan Stubbs, Neil Lennon and Ross, along with the not so popular Paul Heckingbottom, now doing a grand job with Sheffield United.

Kensell and Gordon took a punt on Maloney, who coached with Celtic’s Under-20s in 2017 before joining the Belgium set-up the following year under Roberto Martinez, and everything looked rosy after opening victories against Aberdeen and Dundee United.

Maloney methods fail to inspire

Chris Cadden is dejected after the Scottish Cup semi-final loss to Hearts
Maloney’s last match was a Scottish Cup semi-final loss to Edinburgh rivals Hearts

Since the turn of the year, form has fallen off a cliff, with four wins from 17 games, three of those in the Scottish Cup against League One leaders Cove Rangers (after extra time), Championship darlings Arbroath and Motherwell, who played with 10 men for most of the match.

“Obviously results weren’t of the standard that Hibs expect or should be at,” Murray said. “But it’s difficult to make the drastic changes Shaun wanted to do in terms of style of play and perhaps players he earmarked to bring in.”

There’s no doubt Maloney was dealt a bad hand, with the club’s most influential player, winger Martin Boyle, sold in January. Then came a season-ending injury for Scotland forward Kevin Nisbet, while Christian Doidge, scorer of 32 goals over the past two seasons, has been dogged by illness and an Achilles problem.

Eleven new faces arrived in January, but the focus was on youth and building for the future, while Harry Clarke and Demetri Mitchell suffered long-term injuries.

Maloney placed emphasis on possession, but all too often it was slow passing without purpose, with a callow side lacking menace and pace without Boyle – and opposition waiting to pick off mistakes.

In 13 league games in 2022, Hibs have scored seven and conceded 15, with Maloney’s brief reign ending in back-to-back losses to city rivals Hearts, the first of which consigned them to a bottom-six finish.

The second derby defeat came at Hampden in Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final. Some more experienced players were restored to the side and Hibs put up a commendable fight in a ferocious contest, with Maloney calling it the best performance on his watch.

However, with Hearts in the final, guaranteed European group-stage football next season and sealing the third place Hibs enjoyed last time, that short tenure is over.

“When you lose a derby, it’s tough,” Murray said. “When you lose two in a week, it’s doubly hard and to lose a semi-final adds that extra yard.”

Do Hibs need to go for experience?

So, is this a knee-jerk response to their rivals’ success or a necessary intervention after an experiment that had gone awry?

It should be remembered that Gordon, who talks with such infectious enthusiasm, is something of a rookie in Scottish football too, but the owner can ill afford another misstep of this magnitude.

“At the moment, it doesn’t look great for Hibs,” Murray added. “Anybody worth their salt would need guarantees of backing, obviously with an understanding that, if results aren’t great in the long term, then changes need to happen.

“The Hibs job is still hugely attractive, but you’re not going to get a high-quality manager who is going to bow down to pressure from above and not be given time to put his own ideas in place.

“It’s better now to go with experience. The last time, the two stand-out candidates were Alex Neil and Derek McInnes but they are in jobs now.”

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