The little rays of sunshine which had begun to emerge from the dark, brooding clouds which had gathered over Easter Road in the wake of relegation were beginning to strengthen as Hibs moved into 2015 and continued to do so throughout a year which did much to reunite the Capital club with a largely disaffected support.
Of course, the pain and humiliation suffered as they’d watched their club slowly but inexorably slide towards the Championship would take more than a few months to dissipate but, under the guidance of new chief executive Leeann Dempster – put in place before that upheaval – there’s little doubt there’s much less of an “us and them” attitude among fans.
The full effects of the revamp initiated by Dempster and head of football operations George Craig began to be appreciated, not least the appointment of head coach Alan Stubbs and his team of Andy Holden and John Doolan, who brought with them an enthusiasm and freshness, not to mention their undoubted talents, if not quite an appreciation of the enormity of the task which was about to confront them.
After a shaky start to the season, Hibs entered the new year on what was to be the start of a 15-match unbeaten run, an almost mirror reflection of the way in which they ended 2015, the loss to Rangers only a few days ago their first in 18 matches but one which has done little to dent their hopes of taking the title – something already out of their hands 12 months ago as Hearts stormed their way to promotion.
There will be no such one-horse race this time round with favourites Rangers and Hibs now joined in the tussle by Falkirk, although Stubbs firmly believes the squad he has assembled is more than capable of returning to the Premiership at the second time of asking.
As it was, last season ended as a case of what might have been, Hibs outplaying Falkirk in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup only to be hit by Craig Sibbald’s suckerpunch and then enjoying a 3-0 win over the Bairns on the final day of the regular season to clinch second place, leaving them 18 days to await the winners of the first play-off match between Rangers and Queen of the South.
Stubbs took that opportunity to take his squad to the Spanish resort of La Manga to prepare but, alas, it didn’t quite do the trick, Hibs edged out in the play-off semi-final by the Ibrox club, who themselves were then emphatically beaten as Motherwell retained their top-flight status. It ensured there would again be an Edinburgh v Glasgow battle for this season’s Championship title although, of course, Peter Houston’s Falkirk have quietly joined that particular fight.
If a slow start to last season – understandable given the scale of rebuilding required, Stubbs barely having a team to field in the opening games – was to be Hibs’ downfall, it looked as if that was to be the case this time round, a 6-2 mauling by Rangers in the Petrofac Training Cup followed by defeat at Dumbarton on the first day of the league season raising immediate concerns.
However, although he denied it at the time as one would expect, Stubbs admitted the “Scott Allan saga” had a detrimental effect on his dressing-room, Rangers’ dogged pursuit of the midfielder despite persistent “hands off” warnings from Hibs encouraged by the former Dundee United and West Brom player handing in a transfer request.
Few believed Stubbs, backed to the hilt by his board of directors, when he insisted Allan would not be going to his boyhood heroes no matter what, the Hibs boss later revealing he was prepared to let him sit in the stand rather than make the move to Ibrox. However, the Capital club held firm even if, eventually, they were to lose the 24-year-old, much to everyone’s surprise to Rangers’ Old Firm rivals Celtic.
It was a defiant stance which helped further foster that growing feeling of togetherness, most Hibs fans having resigned themselves to seeing Rangers get their way in such circumstances even if they had lost the previous season’s talisman and Championship player of the year.
Hibs, though, emerged stronger for it, Stubbs able to bring in Liam Henderson on loan as part of the deal, while the fee gained from the sale of a player, who had arrived as a free agent in a shock move the previous summer, helped fund the arrivals of John McGinn and then Dylan McGeouch.
Prior to that, Stubbs had done much of his business early, skipper David Gray extending his contract while Liam Fontaine, Fraser Fyvie, Lewis Stevenson, Mark Oxley and Martin Boyle all penned new deals as James Keatings, suprisingly released by Hearts, and Queen of the South’s Dan Carmichael were snapped up before Stubbs further augmented his squad by bringing in Marvin Bartley from Leyton Orient, Darren McGregor after he was freed by Rangers, and then Islam Feruz and Henri Anier on loan.
As a result, Stubbs may have found himself spoiled for choice when he inspected the array of strikers at his disposal, but again it’s been Jason Cummings, the Championship’s top scorer last season, who has grabbed all the attention, the 20-year-old’s deft finish at Ibrox his 15th goal of the season and putting him, with half the campaign to go, well on the way to eclipsing last year’s tally of 21.
As he prepares to welcome the new year, Stubbs will no doubt reflect that, although there have been one or two occasions over the past few months when things might have gone better, that his side are, as he says, well placed, three points off Rangers when most had traduced Hibs’ title credentials at the beginning of last month when they were in danger of falling 11 behind. There is also the prospect of a League Cup semi-final against St Johnstone in a few weeks time, the Easter Road outfit having already taken care of Premiership sides Aberdeen and Dundee United in the competition. Throughout, it has been made clear the club are determined to continue operating as a Premiership operation themselves, a further sign being the imminent arrival of striker Chris Dagnall, while Stubbs also intends to bring in another defender during the coming transfer window. Such an approach doesn’t come without cost, though, Hibs posting a loss of £840,000, although the club’s financial position remains strong, a refinancing resulting in the club clearing their bank debt of £6.3 million, replacing it with a £5m mortgage from its parent company – which was already owed £3m – to be repaid over ten years.
A shares issue was also launched in January, which has resulted in fan ownership increasing from two per cent to 20 per cent, while Hibernian Supporters Limited, the vehicle put in place to help supporters invest and which now has 1400 members, has added to the initiative’s success with £500,000 raised in the first six months, every penny, as promised, having gone to “fund the club’s sporting ambition”.
In another positive move, fans representatives Frank Dougan and Amit Moudgil were elected directors to give supporters a greater voice at boardroom level.
To that end, a club which was on the brink of tearing itself apart 18 months ago is again displaying a unity of purpose, although all will recognise that there is still a long road to be travelled, with a return to the Premiership very much a necessary step in that journey.