Relegation was a blessing in disguise for Hibs as they return to the Premiership in better health, writes Joel Sked.
After 1087 days, 142 games, Hibernian are finally heading back to the Scottish Premiership. With victory over Queen of the South, coupled with Falkirk’s draw with St Mirren, Hibs have achieved Championship success at the third time of asking.
From the second Neil Lennon walked through the doors at the club’s East Lothian training base he had only one aim: promotion. That has been achieved with three games to spare and for the first time in four seasons the Easter Road side will not need to concern themselves with the play-offs, having been involved every year since they were introduced.
Instead, once the celebrations have died down Lennon, his players and the fans can look ahead to their Scottish Cup semi-final clash with Aberdeen on Saturday. With the pressure off, they’ll go into the game with no trepidation, with all expectancy on Aberdeen. It may be a free-shot for the Hibees, but they will still be doing their utmost to do what no club has since 2009, retain the Scottish Cup.
However, the search for two-in-a-row can take a back seat as the club savour the moment which has been a long time coming.
Few will ever forget the slump which led to Hibs’ recent predicament. The club weren’t going anywhere fast under Pat Fenlon. Terry Butcher, following sterling work in the Highlands with Inverness Caledonian Thistle, was seen as the robust, passionate character to revive the club’s hopes with the team in mid-table stasis. He lost only one of his first eight, a run which included a New Year’s derby win.
But from the last 18 matches of the league season, Hibs picked up a woeful eight points. They sat in seventh from January until the end of April. But a derby defeat saw them drop to eighth before, on the final weekend of the season, they plunged into the dreaded play-off place. The rest is history.
As weird as it sounds, especially as they’ve spent three seasons in the second tier, the demotion has been a blessing. If they had survived would it have been another tepid season. Another raft of players which gave fans little excitement, players in the mould of Rowan Vine, James Collins, and Owain Tudor-Jones, Ryan McGivern and Abdellah Zoubir.
It allowed Alan Stubbs to come in and swiftly build a team to challenge both Rangers and Heart of Midlothian in what was primed to be an incredibly competitive second-tier title race. But such was the work Stubbs had to carry out to that it was understandable Hibs started slowly, losing four of the first six matches.
They lost only four of their next 30 league games to finish ahead of Rangers. But there was more play-off sorrow, to go along with continued Hampden suffering at the hands of Falkirk, as Stubbs’ men lost out to Rangers, despite having beaten them three times in the regular season.
Progress had been made, however. There were transparent signs for the fans to cling to, to give them hope for the future. To make them believe they could come out on top against Rangers in their second year in the second tier.
Yet, early on, they lost ground in the title race. But a run of only one defeat in 21 saw belief rise again. Just when they were about to kick-on and pile the pressure on Mark Warburton’s Rangers they lost four in a row. Five if you include the disheartening League Cup final loss to Ross County; the winning Staggies goal coming late on. More Hampden anguish.
Such was the inconsistent second half of the season Hibs finished behind Falkirk giving them an extra couple of games to play in the play-offs. The term ‘Hibs’d it’ was gaining momentum, perhaps reaching its apex in a 3-2 defeat at the Falkirk Football Stadium, confirming a third season outside the top-flight.
But then it happened. Scottish Cup success. The mitigating factor to Hibs’ poor league form was their progress in both cups. But for most, if not all, it was worth it. The hex, hoodoo and curse put to rest. Stubbs’ men came from behind against Rangers at Hampden to lift the cup for the first time since 1902.
Aside from the obvious, the celebrations, the long awaited victory, the cup win reinvigorated the fan base, it brought the fans closer to the team. Stubbs built a team which the fans could connect with.
Neil Lennon has carried that on this season. A more decisive and pragmatic figure than Stubbs, he has been the ideal appointment to drag Hibs back into the Premiership. He has used the carrot and stick to prod, entice, jolt and inspire his players. Occasionally he appears to go too far but you can’t say it has not worked.
At times it has been a toil, and at times the football has been less than what the fans would like to see. But in the main, when it matters they’ve stepped up and displayed their dominance.
A defeat at Tannadice in December suggested the league title success wasn’t a forgone conclusion as many imagined, especially after five straight wins to open the season. But then Dundee United came to Easter Road and were swept aside by a dominant and confident Hibs performance. They were head, shoulders, knees and toes above the Arabs. A vibrant display, one which belonged in the top tier.
Despite the satisfying defeat of Queen of the South to confirm themselves as champions, lately Hibs have been stumbling towards the line, drawing seven of the last ten games. But that in itself shows the team’s mentality, one which Lennon has been keen to foster. If you don’t play well they make sure they don’t lose.
A lot of that down is to the organisation and structure which has been developed. Even with a spate of injuries defence has continued to be a strong point, helped by the class of Efe Ambrose. Positively, it is a defence that can easily make the step up to the Premiership.
There have been joyous moments throughout the season, namely knocking Hearts out of the cup for the second successive season and also winning in Brondby all the way back in July. But the main aim has been achieved.
Lennon will switch his focus to Aberdeen as well as planning for next season. But for now he, along with everyone involved at the club, and especially the fans, can put the feet up, relax and enjoy a smile.
After all, Hibs are finally heading back to the Premiership.