Their last Easter Road outing had ended in tears, the precursor for a summer of discontent as Hibs supporters expressed their anger following the humiliation of relegation, a calamitous second half of the season culminating in Terry Butcher’s side finally being put to the sword in that traumatic penalty shoot-out by Hamilton.
Time, however, invariably proves to be a great healer and if it’s clear that process is going to take a lot longer than just a couple of months to rebuild the bond between club and fan, there is today at least a semblance of renewed hope.
While Alan Stubbs revealed there had been a mixture of nerves and trepidation among his players in the minutes leading up to their pre-seson friendly with Dundee United, their first appearance at their home ground since that fateful day in May, the head coach insisted the day had ended with the fans departing with “a lot more optimism and excitement” than they’d probably have envisaged in the darkest days of their despair.
The 90 minutes they had just witnessed had, of course, to be put into context, with both sides intent on preparing themselves for the serious stuff, the 1-0 defeat very much an irrelevance for Stubbs, who has had to devote as much time “getting into the heads” of his players as he has drilling them in the style of football he wants to see.
That brand has become increasingly obvious, a patient, passing game with players confident in taking possession and enjoying sufficient trust in their team-mates to give them the ball in tight situations.
However, perhaps more importantly, Stubbs has got his new charges playing with smiles on their faces once again, determined that while history can’t be re-written, they can have a bearing on what the future might hold.
Arguably Stubbs’ influence has had greatest effect on Alex Harris, the teenage winger ending last season a forlorn figure, shorn of confidence while failing to recapture his form following an ankle break.
Now he is the Harris of old, eager to get on the ball, to take on the opposition, one audacious moment against United in which he nutmegged Ryan Dow before attempting to float the ball over the head of goalkeeper Radoslaw Czerniak encapsulating what he is all about.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes has been Stubbs edict to his forward-thinking players, giving them the freedom to display their talents and one which, according to Danny Handling he’s only too happy to embrace.
The 20-year-old has been around the scene for the past three seasons, with many beginning to wonder what his true position would be. Stubbs, though, has seen a potential, not only in Handling, but the other youngsters in his squad which he believes has largely gone untapped – at least up until now.
Now the Scotland Under-21 player has been handed a pivotal midfield berth, getting himself much more involved in the game as was evident against United. He said: “The gaffer has given me a licence to roam, to get on the ball and do my thing.
“He encourages you to keep trying the hard things, not to worry about making a mistake but just to try to do your best.
“It’s more responsibility for me, he doesn’t want me staying up the park as a striker but to come deeper and to take possession. Of course there will be times when we might need to kick the ball up the park, but he wants us to keep it on the deck and to make our passes.
“I think you can see Alex is playing with the same sense of freedom – you wouldn’t have seen him try that nutmeg last season. But you can see it in training every day, he’s not afraid to take people on or to have a shot which everyone could see against United.”
Handling accepts supporters are still coming to terms with finding Hibs in the Championship, but he insisted he and his team-mates can’t afford to continue feeling sorry for themselves as they prepare for life in a league which also contains Capital rivals Hearts and Rangers with the promise of only one automatic promotion place.
He said: “Relegation was bitterly disappointing for everyone at the club. But it’s happened and we have to focus on the season coming and to give it and not the past our full concentration.”
Early days it may be, but Handling believes the fans who were at Sunday’s game left appreciative of the players’ efforts even if they had been beaten by Chris Erskine’s late goal, with new signings David Gray, Farid El Alagui, Scott Allan all making their home debuts alongside trialist goalkeeper Mark Oxley who yesterday agreed to join on a six-month loan deal from English Premier League club Hull City.
He said: “I thought there was a real good buzz in the crowd, that the fans were really behind us. If we keep playing well they’ll react to that and we’ll feed off it again. It’s a circle which can be vicious at times, but when things are going well it’s terrific to have.
“Although we lost I think they enjoyed the way we played and they saw what we are capable of when Farid [El Alagui] put the ball into the net only to be ruled offside. The build-up to that moment was terrific, great passing, super cross from David Gray for Liam Craig to nod back in for Farid. But for the flag we’d already have a contender for goal of the season.
“United were the strongest team we’ve played pre-season, I’d imagine they’ll be battling away at the top of the Premiership but I felt we dominated the game for good spells. A draw might have been fairer considering our performance, but at the end of the day the result didn’t matter.
“I think we showed we’ve got a good squad. The gaffer has made some great additions, he’s said he’ll be patient and get the right ones in and he’s done that. Farid has been doing well, David’s a good player and Scott’s a nippy wee player who’ll add again to our midfield. The fans were perhaps getting a bit anxious about new faces, but I think they’ll be happy.”