Football, like life, comes quickly to you, the speed of movement rarely faster than in Scotland.
Six months ago, as two of the driving forces behind Deloitte’s State of the Scottish Game report, Ron Gordon from Hibs and Dave Cormack from Aberdeen reimagined the SPFL landscape and spoke about the need for vision and the hope for a brave new tomorrow.
A cynic – not uncommon north of the border – might have suggested they put their own houses in order in Easter Road and Pittodrie before suggesting how others might improve, but they were trying to do a good thing; trying to bring their American can-do culture to a sport ruled by people, as they saw it, with negativity by default.
Their overview has narrowed somewhat since then. Reality bites hard in Scottish football. On Saturday, their respective clubs will face off at Easter Road in a Scottish Premiership contest of macabre fascination.
The Hibs have lost 10 of their last 14 games, have head coach Lee Johnson fighting to save his job, a group of players who are set to lose one of their best players as they is in mortal danger of losing another and an executive structure at the club which is, at best, muddled.
Aberdeen have lost seven of the last nine and have a manager, Jim Goodwin, who has endured the most humiliating week of his footballing career – embarrassed by his players in the Scottish Cup loss to Darvel, then publicly reprimanded by its president, like a school principal giving an unruly child one last chance.
Goodwin, to most eyes, looked like a solid date, but he fidgets in the vortex. Darvel on Monday was the piece de resistance following a 5-0 league loss to Hearts and an away record of just two league wins on the road to 16 under Goodwin. The aggregate score of these matches is 34-11.
The cormack statement Wednesday that Goodwin remains, for now, has been the source of many memes. When he wrote of a “football oversight committee” sitting to try Goodwin, he was met with undiluted fury and ridicule from supporters who had never heard of such a group. The gist, minus the heartbreaking invective, was that Cormack was making it up as he went.
Johnson and Goodwin oversee too many horrific results – one of them could come out after Saturday’s El Sackico, as it did come to be known – but the malaise in 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 things went wrong at the end of an otherwise excellent reign) and Stephen Glass in Aberdeen.
Gordon took control of Hibs in the summer of 2019. Since then, Hibs have won 36% of their league games. This season they were knocked out of the Viaplay Cup after losing a game to Morton. They have conceded 10 goals against Celtic this season and six in two against Hearts this month. For one of the biggest clubs in the country, one that recruits players from groups, it’s a pitiful comeback.
They signed generously and, for the most part, badly. Responsibility lies with Johnson, but what about decision-making elsewhere at the club? Where is the we, the direction? What about screening and recruitment? Town neighbors Hearts sign Kye Rowles, Robert Snodgrass and Lawrence Shankland and Hibs sign Will Fish, Nohan Kenneh and Harry McKirdy. What about the fundamentals of a successful club? Is it always the manager’s fault?
Hibs are potentially heading for even rougher waters now. If and when, Ryan Porteous Aside, they have a significant gap to close in an already vulnerable defence. If and when, Kevin Nisbet leaves their top scorer gone. They will get money for both but the club’s track record in the market cannot give any Hibs fan confidence. Substantial actors must be replaced by substantial actors.
Aberdeen’s numbers under Cormack’s presidency are grim. Since taking 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 barred from the Scottish Cup after their worst ever result against Darvel.
If Cormack didn’t exist and Aberdeen fans were asked to describe their dream president, chances are they’d find someone like the man they have. Someone who has loved the club since childhood, someone with money and passion, someone who clearly feels the city in their bones. Cormack is all of those things.
Born in what he called a “slum” in Garthdee. Brought to his first game in Aberdeen aged 10 with a Harry Dawson Tailors Dons scarf around his neck. Raised above the turnstiles. Joe Harper. Bobby Clark. Derek “cut tie” McKay. He could add more, but his love for the club is undeniable.
Succeeds in America and sells his software business for £567m. Supports Aberdeen charities. Thinking big for the club he loves. Buy the spot. Invests. Build a shiny new training ground. Okay, there’s his name on the door but, hey, big deal. Draws up plans for a new stadium. Leads the club through Covid. He defends Aberdeen as if he were the greatest marketing guru to ever walk the face of the earth.
This is the President’s fantasy territory. But it does not work. Maybe it’s too close. Cormack is not like some other absentee owners. Being able to walk the streets of his hometown is important to him. Being able to take care of the community matters. Losing to Darvel will have been a kick in the solar plexus for any fan – and, in his heart, Cormack is a fan.
So it’s complicated. A dream story but a nightmarish stewardship, in terms of results. Wednesday’s statement was from a man unsure where to turn. It’s not just a tough football situation for Cormack. It’s an existential crisis. A crisis of confidence. He nominated Glass and it didn’t work, he nominated Goodwin and it didn’t work, he made other key nominations and they didn’t really work either.
So it’s all deeply rooted. Saturday could signal the end of one manager or another, but that’s the easy part. The hardest part is making good decisions under pressure and it’s not a failure that starts and ends on the sidelines on game days.
Both of these great clubs have a long way to go before they turn the corner and start heading in the right direction.