Hibs confirmed their return to the Labrokes Premiership after three seasons away, winning the Championship with three games to spare
For long enough it has been a case of when, not if. The answer to that question arrived in the 59th minute yesterday.
Already basking in their 3-0 advantage over Queen of the South, the home crowd gave out a roar. It was the signal that St Mirren had taken the lead against Falkirk. Even a draw there would have been enough to wrap up the Championship title race but the goal, scored by John McGinn’s brother, Stephen, gave them welcome breathing space.
“When I was on the pitch I just heard the cheer but I didn’t know that it was Stephen that scored,” said McGinn. “Liam Fontaine let me know when I got in the dressing room. I’m obviously delighted he got the goal. He’s been looking for us to help him out on numerous occasions this week and we haven’t, so I think we owe him one in the next few games!”
Manager Neil Lennon had said that his focus would be on the match in front of him and insisted he would not be looking for updates from elsewhere but, as the cheer went up, he picked out someone in the crowd to verify matters.
The league title had been the target since he joined the club in the summer. They had tried and failed twice before to escape the second tier but some things were worth waiting for.
A team that has been hard to better all season, assuming the top position early on and rarely relinquishing it, they have only suffered three defeats in the league all season. Draws had been the only real cause of frustration, particularly in recent weeks and, with the title within grasp, Lennon had challenged his players to take this game by the scruff of the neck.
Taking the lead in the 14th minute, they did just that. In front of a crowd of more than 17,000, who had turned up looking for a party, Darren McGregor got the ball rolling.
The delivery came in from McGinn and the centre-back, galloping in at the back post to meet it, headed it home from what seemed an impossibly tight angle, out-jumping Chris Higgins. He celebrated it as though it was a cup final winning goal and it almost meant as much. Last weekend he had been the man who gave away the penalty that cost the club a win at Morton but it was evident that he was in the mood to make amends.
It was the Hibs fan’s first goal of the season but by half-time, he was looking for the unlikeliest of hat-tricks. The second goal was more about being in the right place, at the right time. Martin Boyle had been foiled with his 39th minute effort but forced a corner and McGregor’s desire to thrust the club over the line put him in ahead of the Queens defenders to get a boot to the set-piece swung in by Jason Cummings and send it past Lee Robinson.
It was turning out to be as comfortable an afternoon as anyone at Hibs could have hoped for. Totally on top, they all seemed keen to get on the scoresheet. Andrew Shinnie had a couple of chances go wide, while Boyle was busy. In midfield the manager had opted for his better ball players, with Dylan McGeouch, Fraser Fyvie and Shinnie all in alongside McGinn.
Following on from McGregor’s brace, captain David Gray made sure to shatter any lingering hopes their guests may have had of killing the mood, putting the team three up just two minutes after the break.
It meant that when news filtered through that Falkirk had gone behind, and required at least two goals, the home players, fans and staff could relax. On the final whistle there were a few sighs of relief in the directors’ box.
If getting out of this division has been torture for the fans and a struggle for the playing squad, it has been even more taxing for the likes of chief executive Leeann Dempster. The backing has always been there for the managers but that hasn’t been easy. The Premiership will present new difficulties but they are challenges that have been earned.