THIS is what can happen to a football manager in the January window:
he draws up a list of players he would like to sign, he speaks to his chairman about the available budget, he does background checks on whether his chosen target is suitable, he makes an approach to that player's club, he opens negotiations, he gets his hopes up . . . and then something happens to pull the rug from under him and reduces the whole thing to a waste of time.
In January, managers pine for the stability of the summer transfer window. Things are predictable then. The other managers they are dealing with do not get unexpectedly sacked, or find themselves needing to keep all their players because of a sudden injury crisis. The guy they want to sign does not suddenly get hurt, or even go on a streak of form which makes him indispensable to his current club.
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Terry Butcher reeled off all these mid-season inconveniences yesterday as he outlined the difficulty he has had getting deals concluded for Hibs. If there was a swear box he would have filled it with enough cash to fund a transfer fee. The example he gave was Jamie Murphy, the former Motherwell forward now on loan at Sheffield United. Butcher thought he was close to getting Murphy only for the 24-year-old to have the temerity to score three times in a month.
"The bastard," said Butcher, laughing. "He would have done very well for us. But he's doing very well for Sheffield United and fair play to him. It's frustrating and that's another one we scratch off the list.
"We're the kiss of death at the moment. Steve [Marsella, his scout] has done a lot of work speaking to managers and agents. Things have been set up then the manager has been bumped off! Suddenly you're back to square one because the new manager wants to assess his squad.
"But the last two weeks of the January window are like the domino world championships - as soon as one goes the rest follow. Our fans have to be patient because it is a difficult time. You know what you want but you can't always get it."
It is odd to think of Butcher being denied in the transfer market, because just about everything else seems to have gone his way since he took over at Hibernian.
His side take on Aberdeen at Pittodrie tonight and even that difficult fixture does not trouble a team which has lost only once in its eight games under Butcher. The new manager's intention is to bolster the squad in order to consolidate a top-six position and finish as high as possible, although he will sign only if the players fit his plans for next season and beyond.
Tonight he has the chance to use a 'new' Hibs player. Alex Harris, the quick, exciting 19-year-old winger, has been out with an ankle injury since August but is in the squad for Aberdeen and available to play.
"He's at 100% now and raring to go," said Butcher. "As an outside observer Alex was always one who excited me. It's good to have him because he's like a new signing for me. He's a player who can do different things to anyone else in the squad. There's no-one else like him."
Butcher was typically frivolous and good-humoured yesterday, although he was a little serious when it came to discussing the four Hibs players who have been reportedly told they are free to leave.
Actually, he wouldn't confirm any of their names but Kevin Thomson, Rowan Vine and Tom Taiwo are understood to be available.
Tim Clancy, too, although Butcher said he was injured and therefore going nowhere. "What I will say is I've spoken to several players at the club about moving on. Those conversations will remain private until something does happen. What you do get in January is a bit of a shredding of a squad, a bit of pruning. Sometimes you use a Flymo, sometimes it's a little pair of scissors, sometimes it's a big machete. That won't be the case here but these things happen in football.
"I'm not saying that players leaving this football club are bad players. Certainly not. But I've got my opinion on how we should play, it's a formula that has worked pretty well so far and I will stick to it."
Inverness had a generally good record against Aberdeen under Butcher but the current team has looked far more convincing than usual, and when the Highlanders were at Pittodrie in September they lost to a late Scott Vernon goal.
"It's great for the league when clubs like Hibs and Aberdeen do well because of the away support we have," said Butcher. "Aberdeen are a team who are flying.
"I think they'll get that second spot this season. We want to be as close as we can to them but if we're there or thereabouts we'll have done very well ourselves.
"In this game we can say to our players 'this is one of the best teams in the league, what can you do?'"