SEVEN-and-a-half seconds it took.

Seven-and-a-half seconds to respond to the simple question of whether or not Hibs have enough about them to come through a two-legged play-off against lower-league opposition and preserve their place in the SPFL Premiership.

There was the kind of sigh you would expect from a man asked to detail the full political ramifications of the Eastern Ukrainian referendum on the surrounding region in a short soundbite. A most perceptible grimace too.

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John Blackley, you see, has a rich, deep history with the Easter Road outfit that extends to more than 400 appearances as a player over two different spells as well as a couple of years as manager. He was the rock upon which Eddie Turnbull's Tornadoes were built. Gritty and talented in equal measure, he possessed the kind of footballing intelligence which still sees him feted as perhaps the finest centre-back to have worn the jersey over the course of the club's 138-year lifespan.

Maybe Blackley had suffered an unwelcome flashback to the sight of Alan Maybury and Jordon Forster standing back to admire Kris Boyd as he swept home the goal that plunged his old team into this hellish predicament at the weekend. Leaving people speechless is one of the few things this current collection of defenders does well.

The silence, though, seemed more to do with the fact the 66-year-old is hurting badly as he watches them slide towards relegation with the slow, saddening certainty of autumn following summer.

The fact that, after much thought, Blackley could offer no encouragement whatsoever to the long-suffering football watchers of Leith said it all. He didn't want to confess publicly that he sees Hibs as beyond salvation, but, by the time he'd cleared his throat to speak, there was really no need to.

"I think it will be difficult," said Blackley. "I'd love them to stay up, obviously, but they are in a difficult situation. They have no-one to score goals and they keep giving goals away at the back. It's a recipe for disaster. Where are they going to get their next win? They've got to try to get it over the next two games, but it is very, very difficult to turn things round when you are on a run of one win in 19 games. It's just really sad. I really feel sorry for the loyal fans. These are hard times."

As it happens, it was on the other side of Edinburgh yesterday afternoon that the harshest side of the professional game showed itself in its most merciless form.

Blackley's views on Ann Budge's first major act since taking charge at Hearts are clear and he hopes the Hibs manager, Terry Butcher, is shown a little more faith by his board of directors as he seeks to clear out a dressing-room of individuals that have underperformed for far too long.

"I can't believe that Gary Locke has been sacked," he said. "It's absolutely shocking, unbelievable.

"I hope Terry and Maurice [Malpas] will be given the time to give Hibs a future. Terry has not become a bad manager over the last few months. There is an indecision about the place and the players don't know who is staying and going. There is a failing in the group and you have to look at the players. Terry has to bring his own men in, guys he thinks can do him a job."

Butcher won promotion with Inverness Caledonian Thistle after being in charge when they tumbled out of the top flight, but Blackley points out that a division already guaranteed to include Hearts and Rangers is not where you would want to be next term.

"There is no guarantee Hibs would come straight back up," he said. "The Championship is going to be a fantastic league to be involved in, but only two teams will have the chance to get out of it." Blackley is also acutely aware of the pressures central to managing Hibs. He had two years at the helm after taking over from Pat Stanton in September 1984 and eventually resigned just over two years later, having been overwhelmed by it all.

"I didn't like what was happening when I was the manager, but I created my own problems," he confessed. "I was picking the team and taking the training. I found it difficult to handle the press. I found it difficult to handle the chairman, Kenny Waugh, because we didn't see eye-to-eye sometimes."

Blackley was at Hampden Park yesterday to promote a book looking back on Scotland's 1974 World Cup campaign and expressed his view that the national team's exit on goal difference came about through Zaire's Yugoslavian coach, Blagoje Vidinic, becoming part of a conspiracy with his home nation.

"I don't think Zaire were such a bad side that they could lose 9-0 to anybody, but they did to Yugoslavia. On the day we played them and won 2-0, they were actually quite difficult to beat. They had a Yugoslav coach, though, and it has always been my thought that there was something not right about it."

n Scotland 74: A World Cup Story', by Richard Gordon, is published by Black and White