Hibs hot favourites in Championship pressure cooker

Hibernian line up for a team picture ahead of their home tie with Brondby
Hibernian line up for a team picture ahead of their home tie with Brondby
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Hibernian are the bookies’ favourites. But gambling is no longer an option. This year the Easter Road club have to be a sure thing.

It’s not all or nothing but, one suspects, if they do not deliver at the third time of asking then the status quo at the club would shift. The fact is they will take a seven-figure financial hit before the season even kicks off, the difference between life in the top flight and another term in the second tier and no-one in Leith considers that sustainable.

But they have wagered a lot on seeing the job through this term. With city rivals Hearts clearing the scene in the first year, Rangers vacating it in the second, on paper at least, they now have an easier route to the top of the table as they seek to avoid the messy and energy sapping play-off tussle.

The favourites tag puts them under pressure, but no more pressure than the situation itself. Or indeed the man who took charge following the departure of the guy who finally ended the 114-year Scottish Cup winning drought, Alan Stubbs.

“If you are building expectations then you are doing something right,” argued new manager Neil Lennon, nonplussed by the fact that others are making the same demands of his players that he is. “And then it is just about dealing with the expectations as you go along. You know what it is like in modern-day football, the expectations are totally unrealistic sometimes. But that is just the nature of it.”

As far as the new boss is concerned the heightened expectations simply reflect his own ambitions. From his first day in the job he has talked about the perceptions of a soft centre at Hibs and admitted he shared that view. Players insist the winning of the Scottish Cup now serve to undermine those claims but he wants to see more steel this term in every game they play, not just one-off cup games, where last season they proved they had what it takes to compete against Premiership teams, they just lacked the wherewithal to plot a route back there.

“Whether we are favourites or not, the priority is to win promotion back to the SPFL,” he said this week, before reeling off names of a list of contenders. Given the way Leicester City shocked the world, he says there is no longer scope for writing anyone off.

But there are some who are a more obvious threat than others. Dundee United were a team on the slide but an immediate bounce back is possible – something Hearts proved all too comfortably a couple of years ago. Under the guidance of new gaffer Ray McKinnon, they have wiped the slate, offloading 19 members of the squad who took them into the Championship abyss and the rebuilding work is ongoing, with pre-season results showing signs of positivity.

The manager had the beating of Hibs several times last term while at Raith Rovers, but the key for every team will be consistency, momentum and shouldering the burden of expectation. With 10,000-plus season tickets holders, that volume of support could be a crutch or a curse to Hibs, depending on how things start.

It has given them some financial freedom, the kind needed to strengthen, with Lennon admitting that he has not finished his shopping. Another goalkeeper and a possible return for Liam Henderson are in the offing. Others could follow. But each time they play in front of a big home crowd they will be expected to deliver or the disquiet will be obvious.

The size of Hibs gives them clout, while the fact they have had two seasons to learn from mistakes gives them a head start on others. They need to make the most of that.

The pre-season has been promising, as were the Europa League qualifiers against Brondby. It is how they do when they have to travel to Dumbarton or head off to Ayr United that could be a clearer indication of how their fortunes will fair though. Last year, in games against Livingston and Alloa, teams who would ultimately go down, they faltered.

Those kind of slip ups would prove costly again when faced with a number of teams who are approaching this term with some optimism.

St Mirren have had a year to get their bearings in the second level and under Alex Rae they are piecing things back together.

There are others who will trouble Hibs and who are more than capable of undermining the challenge, if not quite able to muster a fully fledged title bid of their own. Falkirk are, arguably, a weakened side, with some key players another year older and others off to pastures new, but they showed that will and belief, allied with a strong team unit, can take clubs far in this league. They also proved that the unexpected should now be expected.

Which leaves scope for others to spring a surprise, with experienced managers at the helm of several clubs. Bossed by men who know the Scottish game inside out, guys such as Peter Houston, Jim Duffy, Ian McCall, Allan Johnston and Gary Locke, like Lennon, have all managed in the top flight, while Rae is another who can use contacts at the top of the game.

“I see Dundee United as strong contenders, Falkirk too given the season they had last year, said Lennon. “There may be a surprise in the offing, you look at the season Dunfermline enjoyed last year and momentum is a huge thing in football.”

Which is why a bright start is required. Hearts took the lead of the first day of the season two years ago and never looked back, Rangers did not drop a single point until November, giving them an early advantage none of the other teams could completely reel in. Lennon would despair if it turns out to be a more dogged affair, provided they put together a winning run when it matters. A good start won’t instal anyone as a sure thing but, for all in the second tier, it serves up a tried and tested formula for success.