PAUL HECKINGBOTTOM has sought to introduce an atmosphere of ‘tension and friction’ on the training ground following a string of meek surrenders.
The Hibernian head coach has come under increased scrutiny following Hibs’ 2-1 reverse against Hearts on Sunday, with his charges throwing away a hard-earned lead in the final 20 minutes to slip to a fifth successive league match without a victory.
A modest protest of around 150 supporters gathered in front of the stadium to demand Heckingbottom’s sacking just seven months on from his appointment.
The #Heckysatthewheel social media movement now seems a rather long time ago.
“It hurts your pride. You’ve got feelings and your family sees and hears it – so it’s not nice,” he says, addressing those post-match scenes for the first time.
“But emotions are high at a match. It is not belittling everything but you can’t get carried away when people say good things about you or when people say bad things.”
Instead, he swiftly turned his attention to arresting Hibs’ alarming decline to second-bottom under Heckingbottom. His first priority has been to invite ‘anger’ and ‘frustration’ among his players in a bid to spark improved performances.
In his eyes, the recent run of form is clearly a failure in character and personality.
“After Sunday, there’s been disappointment, frustration,” said Heckingbottom. “I want to see more anger and then display that in our performances.
“If they are not as frustrated as I am about the little lapses in concentration that cost them a derby win they should not be playing the game. There should be frustration, anger and real determination.
“You need to create an environment which promotes that and is open to a challenge. You want a bit more tension.”
Heckingbottom urged his players to take the lead in discussions as they assessed their showing against the Jambos and the recent malaise. Talks were frank and candid.
“There should be some friction, some edge to how we work,” he adds. “That’s going to be something we do quite a lot of. We did it last season in small groups and it’s important for me to totally come out of it.”
Recruitment has been another stick used to beat Heckingbottom, with the substitutes’ bench against Hearts seen by many as a damning indictment of Hibs’ signing policy.
Christian Doidge, Joe Newell, Adam Jackson and Glenn Middleton were not deemed worthy of a starting berth.
Of their 10 new arrivals, not one can be said to have been a true smash-hit, albeit Jason Naismith and Melker Hallberg are only just through the door. Even the form of Scott Allan – not a Heckingbottom signing regardless – has tailed off recently.
“You can’t just go and sign players who you know have been there, seen it and done it,” Heckingbottom concedes. “One, you generally can’t afford it. And two, there are not too many of them about. So you have to look elsewhere to match your budget.
“With that, there is more of a risk, without a doubt. You need to be really calculating in what you do then, once they are here, help them with the acclimatisation and getting them in the team.”
Such is the paucity of transfer fees in the Scottish game, Doidge’s £350,000 arrival from Forest Green Rovers may as well have been £35 million. The price-tag on his head has undoubtedly played a part in some harsh assessments of his early outings. Nevertheless, he has not hit the ground running.
“He is settling. You need to wait until they’re ready,” added Heckingbottom. “You need to wait until they can give the best of themselves. He has come in and done alright. I’ve only given him four starts in the league and league cup. He’s got two goals.
“Christian has good qualities, different qualities to what we’ve got, and we are expecting him to enjoy himself, show what he is about and help us score goals.”
Even Trainspotting author and celebrity fan, Irvine Welsh, piled on the pressure this week, telling BBC Scotland that Heckingbottom had turned Hibs into the ‘favourites’ for relegation.
The Englishman wisely avoided being drawn into a war of words. Few are quite as aggressively potent with them as the man who penned Filth.
“That’s just how fans talk,” he added, diplomatically. “They want their club to do well and everybody wants their team to be successful. If we go on a run of winning games, or we go on a cup run, then the questions will be different and there will be a different feel.”
Heckingbottom bristles at comparisons with Leeds United, where he lasted 16 games before being dismissed. That is partly because he clearly feels limited in how much he can, or should, say about that ill-fated stint. However, he also feels any correlation is false.
Asked whether his relationship with the supporters at Hibs has reached a point of no return, as it appeared to at Elland Road, he adds: “It’s pointless making comparisons. Leeds was a long time ago and nothing like this club, nothing at all.
“It was totally different ownership, totally different players and fans and different situation. This is nothing like it at all.”
As he seeks to re-establish himself in the good graces of the Easter Road faithful, Wednesday evening’s Betfred Cup quarter-final at Kilmarnock is mammoth.
Should Heckingbottom fail to guide Hibs into the last-four then, regardless of his dismissive attitude towards parallels with his Leeds tenure, Heckingbottom’s reign in Leith will look increasingly destined to end in the same fashion.