The stark reality of losses to St Mirren, Motherwell and Livingston, did not fit that narrative and, when added to the European slip up in Andorra, cost Lee Johnson his job. It means that while former captain and first team coach David Gray has been left to oversee Thursday night’s trip to Villa Park, chief executive Ben Kensell, along with owners Kit and Ian Gordon and the rest of the board will be focused on identifying, engaging and enlisting the management team capable of taking them forward.
With Gray poised to remain in charge for Sunday’s match at Pittodrie, there will be some interested observers by then as the shortlist is drawn up. The international break offers the board time to fine tune their requirements but they can’t hang about. The run of Kilmarnock, St Johnstone, St Mirren and Dundee matches immediately after that break arguably offer the Leith club the opportunity to make up some ground, unfettered by European commitments and before they head to Tynecastle for the first capital derby of the season, followed by an away game against Rangers and a home fixture against the defending champions.
The recent experience in managerial recruitment suggests the club’s headhunters should make light work of the latest task. Looking for their fourth manager in four years, for a club that has spoken of long-term projects and stability in the football department, they need to up their game. In the past Jack Ross delivered cup runs, Hampden appearances, a third place finish in the league and European football. It wasn’t enough. It took the board just 10 days to install his replacement – Shaun Maloney – and four months to dispense with his services. There was a more thorough search before Lee Johnson was appointed, with the board taking a month to bring the former Sunderland boss on board. The drawn out nature of that hunt was blamed on the need to get it right, but just over a year into a four-year contract, the search begins anew.
It is unlikely that the criteria has changed much but it will be interesting to see if there are any compromises. During previous recruitment drives, they have spoken about acquiring “a manager who has an attacking style, who’s progressive, and someone who is hungry for the opportunity to build something here at this big club”, while Johnson was hired due to his “great experience in management, but he also has knowledge of the Scottish and English game”. It was said he was a manager with “a proven record of success” who would bring “a definitive style of positive play to Hibs”.
“We wanted a manager that would lead on recruitment … shares similar levels of ambitions for the Football Club and will instill a winning culture,” the club statement read at his announcement. But turning around playing styles takes time and the right personnel, in the technical area but also on the pitch. Inheriting others’ players does not always make that straightforward, while there has to be an understanding that what works in one league will not always be considered acceptable in another.
Johnson, like Maloney, like Ross, ticked a lot of boxes. They just didn’t tick enough. It will be argued that Ross came closest, making the most of things. But fans, and some of the club hierarchy were not satisfied with the playing style. They wanted to eat their cake and have it. Many, many clubs have tried that in the Scottish top flight but few outwith the big two, with their financial clout, have delivered. The players who are capable of delivering the level of technical ability and entertainment on a consistent basis to battle for the top slots and silverware rarely come in Scottish football’s price range.
Johnson tried to concentrate on the product, front-loading his side’s to deliver goals. It was the weaknesses at the back that destroyed him as the risk and reward option failed to garner enough points. But the streaky nature of Johnson’s tenure was not unexpected. It is a recognised part of his management history but with things so tight in the Premiership, there is perhaps a need for a bit more pragmatism as the search for his replacement moves on.
“I always think it's better to travel in hope rather than expectation,” Kensell once said. “But I'm a Gillingham supporter and my team has never really done anything of note.” There are, perhaps, lessons to be learned from that as Hibs look for a compromise that can deliver points as well as an element of the aesthetics sought by the fans and the office bearers. But with Johnson and his staff to be paid off and at least one but probably two defenders needed before the window closes this week if the next manager is to be given a fighting chance, financing a manager who can deliver will be challenging.
There are homegrown options and men who have managed in the Premiership before but Hibs like to look outside the box, which is why the likes of Graham Arnold has been touted among the possible candidates. A strong contender, given his man-management, his relationship with the likes of Martin Boyle and his history in guiding the Aussies through a World Cup. He also already has a rapport with Kensell and a respect for the Scottish game. The way Ange Postecoglou adapted to the Premiership could be seen as another advantage.
But, the hope is that any new manager can deliver a period of stability as well as success. And, if he is to move on quickly, it is because he has delivered on expectations and been lured elsewhere.