Lewis Stevenson knows Hibee despair when he sees it, having experienced enough of it, and the full-back says last May’s triumph was vital to the push back to the top flight, inspiring the team and also the support which has backed them all the way.
In the wake of the title-clinching win over Queen of the South securing a place in the Premiership, Stevenson immediately picked out the last-minute play-off defeat by Falkirk 12 months previously as one the blackest moments of the club’s three seasons down below.
“The play-offs have been tough, especially Falkirk,” he said, “and I think if we hadn’t won the cup a week later it would have been hard to bounce back.
“I know we keep going on about the cup but it did lift the club, not just the players but the supporters, who this season have been phenomenal. I don’t think it would have been like that had we not won the cup.”
Stevenson’s Hibs career began in thrilling fashion with a winner’s medal and man-of-the-match garland from the 2007 League Cup final. But then he seemed to know only bad days, including thrashings by Hearts and Malmo which rate as the most gruesome results in the club’s history, quickly followed by them falling through the trapdoor into the second tier when they lost to Hamilton Accies in a play-off penalty shootout.
“It’s only been three years since Hamilton but it feels a long longer,” he added. “I was part of the team that came down and felt we had to right some wrongs. I hope I’ve partly redeemed that by being part of the team going back up. If we hadn’t got promoted and I’d left I’d have felt a void. I’m delighted we’ve done it and hopefully I’ll get a new contract now.
“But there have been a few times when the Championship has been harder than I thought it would be. And yes, there were probably some moments when I wondered if we were going to get out, but when you see the crowds we’ve hard this season it was inevitable a club our size would go up eventually.”
So what’s made the difference this time? With Hearts and Rangers getting out before them, maybe the race to the flag hasn’t been quite so ferocious, although there have been plenty of tenacious opponents for Hibs who have had to settle for many more draws than they would have liked.
But the mentality of the Leith team has been re-shaped, and Stevenson said credit for that must go to manager Neil Lennon.
“He’s definitely changed it. Every day he moans and it’s hard at times but he does get the best out of you,” said Stevenson. “He’s wanted us to be winners and the fact we’ve only lost three times shows the mentality we have now.”
Had the loyal, always-willing Stevenson felt the sharp edge of the boss’s tongue? “I’ve had a few bollockings,” he told reporters. “They’re not pleasant as I’m sure you guys know yourself! You don’t want to get on the wrong side of him, but he’s a winner and that’s all he’s wanted us to be.”
Last Saturday’s crowd topped 17,000. The Championship will miss such bumper gates but Stevenson said the size of the home turn-outs and the expectancy presented a challenge for the players.
“It’s been great to have that support but it also adds pressure,” he said. “Other teams have been able to come here with no fear; it’s been a shot to nothing for them. We’ve had to handle that and been expected to win. It’s been tough but we have dealt with it better.”
The Championship, he said, had been an “adventure” with both spartan Central Park and 50,000-plus Ibrox on the itinerary. “It’s the same game and you have to perform wherever it takes you,” said the philosophical Stevenson.
With hindsight, and the club in better shape now than pre-relegation, had demotion been such a bad thing? “Maybe it’s worked out better. I’m sure we’ll sell plenty of season tickets for next term. Everyone’s together, the players and the fans. There’s a connection which is definitely different to a few years ago.”
So, with the cup semi-final against Aberdeen upcoming, can the Hibees do the double? Stevenson, after all he’s been through in green and white, knows better than to make a bold prediction. “I’m not saying that!” he laughed.