|Venue: Easter Road, Edinburgh Date: Saturday, 28 January Kick-off: 15:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland Extra and the BBC Sport website & app, text updates on the BBC Sport website & app|
Football, like life, comes at you fast, the speed of travel rarely more rapid than in Scotland.
Six months ago, as two of the driving forces behind the Deloitte Report into the state of the Scottish game, Ron Gordon of Hibs and Dave Cormack of Aberdeen re-imagined the SPFL landscape and talked about the need for vision and the hope of a brave new tomorrow.
A cynic – not in short supply north of the border – might have suggested they get their own houses in order at Easter Road and Pittodrie before suggesting how others might better themselves, but they were trying to do a good thing; trying to bring their American can-do culture to a sport governed by people, as they saw it, with negativity set to default.
Their big picture view has narrowed somewhat since then. Reality bites hard in Scottish football. On Saturday, their respective clubs will slug it out at Easter Road in a Scottish Premiership contest of grisly fascination.
Hibs have lost 10 of their past 14 games, have a head coach, Lee Johnson, who is battling to save his job, a player pool that’s just about to lose one of its best players while in mortal danger of losing another and an executive structure at the club that is, at best, muddled.
Aberdeen have lost seven of the past nine and have a manager, Jim Goodwin, who has been through the most humiliating week of his football career – embarrassed by his players in the Scottish Cup loss to Darvel and then scolded publicly by his chairman, in the manner of a head teacher giving an unruly child one last chance.
Goodwin, to most eyes, looked like a sound appointment, but he’s flailing in the vortex. Darvel on Monday was the pièce de résistance coming on the back of a 5-0 league loss to Hearts and an away record of just two league wins on the road from 16 under Goodwin. The cumulative score in those matches is 34-11.
The statement by Cormack on Wednesday that Goodwin is staying, for now, has been the source of many memes. When he wrote of a “football monitoring board” sitting in judgement of Goodwin, he was met with undiluted fury and ridicule from supporters who had never heard of such a group. The gist, minus the rip-roaring invective, was that Cormack was making it up as he went along.
Johnson and Goodwin are overseeing too many awful results – one of them might exit after Saturday’s El Sackico, as it has come to be known – but the malaise at their clubs is deeper than both of them, just as it was deeper than Jack Ross and Shaun Maloney at Hibs and Derek McInnes (when it went wrong at the end of an otherwise excellent reign) and Stephen Glass at Aberdeen.
Gordon assumed control of Hibs in the summer of 2019. Since that point, Hibs have won 36% of their league games. This season they got knocked out of the Viaplay Cup after having to forfeit a game against Morton. They have conceded 10 goals against Celtic this season and six in two against Hearts this month. For one of the country’s biggest clubs, one that’s been signing players in clusters, that’s a pitiful return.
They have signed liberally and, mostly, poorly. The buck stops with Johnson, but what about the decision-making elsewhere at the club? Where’s the nous, the direction? What about the scouting and recruitment? City neighbours Hearts sign Kye Rowles, Robert Snodgrass and Lawrence Shankland and Hibs sign Will Fish, Nohan Kenneh and Harry McKirdy. What about the basic fundamentals of a successful club? Is it always just the manager’s fault?
Hibs are potentially heading into even choppier waters now. If, and when, Ryan Porteous departs they have a significant gap to fill in an already vulnerable defence. If, and when, Kevin Nisbet leaves that’s their best goalscorer gone. They will get money for both but the club’s track record in the market cannot fill any Hibs fan with confidence. Substantial players need to be replaced by substantial players.
Aberdeen’s numbers under Cormack’s chairmanship are grim. Since he took over, the Dons have won 34% of their league games. They have the second worst defensive record in the Premiership this season and are now out of the Scottish Cup after the worst result in their history against Darvel.
If Cormack did not exist and Aberdeen fans were asked to describe their dream chairman then the probability is they would come up with somebody just like the man they have. Somebody who has loved the club since childhood, somebody with money and passion, somebody who clearly feels the city in his bones. Cormack is all of those things.
Born in what he called a “slum” in Garthdee. Brought to his first Aberdeen match at the age of 10 with a Dons scarf from Harry Dawson’s tailors around his neck. Lifted over the turnstiles. Joe Harper. Bobby Clark. Derek ‘Cup tie’ McKay. He might lay it on thick, but his love of the club is undoubted.
Makes good in America and sells his software business for £567m. Supports Aberdeen charities. Thinks big for the club he loves. Buys the place. Invests. Builds a shiny new training ground. Okay, it’s got his name over the door but, hey, big deal. Draws up plans for a new stadium. Steers the club through Covid. He champions Aberdeen like he’s the greatest marketing guru who ever walked the face of the earth.
That’s fantasy chairman territory right there. But it’s not working. Maybe he’s too close to it. Cormack is not like some other absentee owners. Being able to walk the streets of his home city is important to him. Being able to mill about the community matters. Losing to Darvel will have come as a kick to the solar plexus to all fans – and, at his heart, Cormack is a fan.
So it’s complicated. A dream back story but a nightmarish stewardship, in results terms. The statement on Wednesday was that of a man who does not really know which way to turn. This is not just a football predicament for Cormack. This is an existential crisis. A crisis of confidence. He appointed Glass and it did not work, he appointed Goodwin and it’s not working, he’s made other key appointments and they are not really working either.
So all of this is deep rooted. Saturday might signal the end of one manager or another, but that’s the easy bit. The hard bit is making good decisions under pressure and it is not a failing that begins and ends on the sidelines on match days.
Both of these great clubs have a way to go before they turn the corner and start heading in the right direction.