The last time Burton O’Brien faced Hibs at Almondvale, nearly 7000 people turned out to see Garry O’Connor and Derek Riordan fire the Edinburgh club to a 2-0 win over his Livingston side in January 2005.
It was a victory that would help the rampant Hibees go on to secure third place in the Scottish Premier League in Tony Mowbray’s first season in charge, while the Lions would end the campaign tenth in the top flight.
In the intervening period, most of which O’Brien has spent with either Sheffield Wednesday or Falkirk, the landscape has changed significantly at both Lothians clubs.
After a glittering first spell with Livingston in which his three-year stint took in a famous CIS Cup triumph over Hibs as well as three consecutive campaigns in the top flight, the 33-year-old midfielder returned to Almondvale two years ago to find his old club firmly established in the second tier.
It’s not just the Lions – now more than eight years outside the top flight – who have been tamed, however. Hibs have long since ceased to be the swashbuckling, respected force they were a decade ago and now find themselves sharing Championship status with Livingston.
As if to underline the way things have gone in recent times, today’s teatime showdown between the two Lothians clubs – being shown live on BBC Alba – will be doing well to attract even half the crowd that turned out for the aforementioned SPL encounter almost ten years ago.
“If you’d said a couple of years ago that we were going to have games like these in the Championship, people would think you were crazy,” said O’Brien. “It’ll be good to have Hibs through at Almondvale. I remember playing against them in my first spell. Back then, they had boys like Derek Riordan, Scott Brown, Garry O’Connor, Steven Fletcher and Kevin Thomson coming through at that particular time. They were a formidable team back then.”
The prospect of facing Hibs these days is less daunting, although O’Brien and his colleagues will not be reading anything into the fact they have won only three of their nine Championship games so far and languish 14 points behind leaders Hearts.
The veteran midfielder has twice watched them turn on the style against Rangers in televised matches at Ibrox this season, while he has been highly impressed by the latest crop of young players – Jordon Forster, Danny Handling, Sam Stanton, Alex Harris and Jason Cummings – starting to establish themselves in the first team.
“Hibs have been a bit indifferent this season,” he said. “I’ve seen them a couple of times. They were very good in both games at Ibrox. They’ll have hoped for the gap not to be as big as it is and they’ll be looking to close it against us.
“They’ve got a great bunch of young kids there. I’ve seen quite a bit of them and they’re very good, but their form is going to be temperamental, it’ll be up and down. The Hibs fans will have to be patient with them. They’re a club in transition on and off the park, but it’ll come good for them eventually.”
O’Brien hopes it doesn’t “come good” today. The Lions have endured a torrid time of it recently, with last weekend’s Petrofac Training Cup victory – on penalties – over Stranraer halting a four-game losing streak.
“We’ve got seven points on the board and we’re looking to build on that. We made a decent enough start, but then we had a few tough games back-to-back against Aberdeen [in the League Cup], Hearts and Rangers and we were really disappointed with how they went. It was important to get back to winning ways in the cup last week and now we’ve got three league games in a week so we’ll be looking to kick on and start climbing the table.
“Getting to the cup final has given everyone a lift. It’s always nice to get to a cup final and it’s given everyone a timely boost on the back of our losing run.”
The visit of Hibs this evening is sure to get the juices of everyone at Almondvale flowing. “The gap between big clubs like Hibs, Hearts and Rangers and the rest of us is not as big as it once was,” added O’Brien, “but it’ll still be a hard game.
“It brings an extra edge when you’re playing against Hibs, Hearts and Rangers. They bring bigger crowds and you certainly notice that you’re playing a better calibre of player. It’ll be another great chance for the younger players in the team to test themselves.”