James McPake expects much-improved campaign after returning to Hibs

James McPake believes Hibernian will be a far more competitive outfit this time round than the one which struggled so badly last term. And, having just sealed his return to Easter Road where he spent the second half of last season on loan, the centre-back believes Pat Fenlon’s side could be one of the teams battling to take advantage of the almost-certain absence of Rangers in the SPL.

The newco Rangers will be formally denied entry to the SPL this week, and McPake realises he is returning to a Scottish game in turmoil after he penned a two-year deal to seal his free transfer at the weekend. The 28-year-old was an inspirational figure for the Easter Road men last term as they narrowly escaped relegation to the First Division and reached an ill-fated Scottish Cup final meeting with city rivals Hearts.

Ahead of the start of pre-season training today, the former Livingston defender, who will again be installed as skipper having worn the captain’s armband when he moved north from Coventry City in January, said: “It’s looking very likely that there will be no Rangers in the SPL next season. That has its positives and its negatives.

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“It will be disappointing not getting to play against them because games against Rangers are big games and ones that you always look forward to playing in. But the benefit is there’s one less good team in the league and that gives teams like Hibs, Hearts and Dundee United the chance to put in a challenge to Celtic at the top.”

The return of McPake will be hailed by the Hibs support after he became a firm favourite on the strength of some determined displays in his 15 games in the second half of the campaign, which won him an international call-up for Northern Ireland for last month’s friendly against the Netherlands.

McPake is sure the supporters will throw their weight behind preparations for what it is hoped will be a season of change. He added: “The fans have been great to play in front of in my short time at the club and I’m sure they will be the same again next season. They gave us great support last season but they need a successful football team and hopefully we can give them one next season.”

The feel-good factor within the Hibs support on the back of staving off relegation and reaching the Scottish Cup final evaporated alarmingly quickly amid the devastation of May’s 5-1 Hampden hammering by Hearts.

However, McPake – Hibs’ goalscorer on the day and possibly the only satisfactory performer in green and white – insists that embarrassment simply made him more eager to rejoin the club and make up for the humiliation. He is thrilled to resume his career with a club he insists felt right from the word go.

He explained: “I had a great five or six months at Hibs. From the relationship I built up with the fans, the management and the staff, everyone was great with me. I felt I’d been around for years after being there for just a couple of weeks.

“I really enjoyed it from the start and they helped me get the games I needed to prove I was fit again and on the back of that I won an international call-up.

“The cup final was the only real negative. It was just so disappointing for everyone. But, if anything, it made me more up for coming back to try and make up for that. But it’s not something to dwell on. It’s a new season and we have to look forward.”