Hibs return to the top table united and full of belief

The Hibs squad show off the Ladbrokes Championship trophy at full-time on Saturday
The Hibs squad show off the Ladbrokes Championship trophy at full-time on Saturday
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No-one at Easter Road wanted to spent one season in the Championship far less three.

But, as Hibs prepare to return to the Premiership, was relegation really that catastrophic for the Capital club?

Hibs head coach Neil Lennon

Hibs head coach Neil Lennon

Yes, certainly everyone would have much rather have had regular trips to grounds such as Celtic Park, Tynecastle and Pittodrie than trawling around some of the far less salubrious surroundings that have been their recent destinations.

However, rather than proving to be the end of the world, dropping into the second tier of Scottish football has proved to be a rather cathartic moment in Hibs’ long history.

The immediate aftermath of that shock capitulation to Hamilton as Terry Butcher’s players became the first Premiership side to succumb to the threat of the newly-introduced play-off system was, of course, one of anger, the fans’ fury all too evident in those hastily-arranged demonstrations outside the stadium.

It was the final twist of what had, if truth be told, been a downward spiral which had taken place over a number of years. Pat Fenlon was brought in, if you remember, to stave off relegation, the Irishman somehow conjuring up two Scottish Cup finals, however painful the memory of those days out at Hampden proved to be, before Butcher lost the senior members of his dressing-room and with it Hibs’ place at the top table.

Making matters worse, there was no straight forward return as there had been under Alex McLeish in the late nineties. Hibs were badly prepared for what was to come, pitched against Hearts, who had been readying themselves for such a scenario for months, and Rangers, battling their way back from the nether regions of Scottish football.

Nevertheless, the Easter Road board took the brave decision to maintain a Premiership budget and, to many, took a chance in handing Alan Stubbs his first managerial role, a gamble which paid off handsomely as he quickly built a side regarded as playing the most pleasing football in the country.

Twice, though, he missed out via the play-offs on promotion although the second such disappointment was drowned by the euphoria of winning the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years, an achievement which renewed the enthusiasm of many Hibs fans for their club as seen by 11,500 of them snapping up season tickets.

Under Stubbs’ successor Neil Lennon, pictured below, the football has been more pragmatic but successful, the Championship title clinched with games to spare although it should have been won a few weeks earlier than it was. The bottom line is, though, Hibs are back.

And for those Premiership sides who haven’t come up against Hibs over the past couple of seasons, they’ll discover a club rejuvenated, one which a bond between the boardroom, dressing-room and fans which would have been unthinkable three years ago. A club with a real sense of momentum and one convinced they aren’t making the step up merely to make up the numbers.

So, has the three-year exile been worth it? Opinions will, undoubtedly, be divided. While many would have taken promotion over winning the Scottish Cup, Hibs will return as a club reunited, with a self belief and confidence that good times lie ahead. Chief executive Leeann Dempster who, along with her backroom staff, take much credit for paying attention to the little things that mean so much, has revealed that 9000 season tickets have already been sold for next season with the target being a record 12,000.

A bumper 19,764 crowd for the final game of the season (and who is to say it wouldn’t have reached that even if St Mirren, fighting for their Championship survival, hadn’t brought 1800 of their own along the M8?) helped swell the average league gate throughout to more than 15,000 – figures not seen for almost 40 years.

But, while it appears to have been all sweetness and light, head coach Lennon revealed he’d seen close up what the pressure of returning the club to the Premiership had done to those who’d struggled, in the absence of the lucrative income offered by television, to back him and before him Stubbs.

He said: “I think there was a huge amount of pressure not only on myself but Leeann, George [Craig, the club’s head of football operations],and the board and you could see it sometimes throughout the season.

“They kept it away from me but you could feel it. The aim was to get up but the connection between the players and fans has been strong. We’ve rarely heard a dissenting voice and the support we’ve had has been fantastic. The players have covered themselves in glory. Okay, we’re a big club in the Championship but they have earned right to get out of it and they have done it.”

Lennon conceded Hibs had been firm favourites from day one to go up but admitted that, despite having won numerous trophies as a player and manager at Celtic, his latest triumph had proved more emotional than he might have thought.

He said: “I didn’t know how I was going to feel but it felt good. There was a real personal amount of pride for the club and people I work for and with and the players. It meant a hell of a lot. I was trying not to get emotional out there but I think the older you get the more it means to you.

“We went into Championship as favourites but thoroughly merited the title – we won it handsomely. We could have won the [Scottish Cup] semi-final as well, I have immense pride in everyone associated with the club. It’s really grown on me, got under my skin. It’s a great feeling for everyone else. Sometimes in this job you get the chance to make a lot of people very happy and today they get to go home happy and proud.”

But, Lennon admitted, he felt happiest for players such as Lewis Stevenson, Paul Hanlon, Jason Cummings and Jordon Forster, all stripped for action on that fateful day late the club were relegated in May 2014, all of whom have had the opportunity leave in the intervening years but decided to stay. He said: “For them, there must be a great deal of satisfaction and relief and they still have a lot to offer which is vitally important as well. But we don’t want to be in that position again.”

As for the final game itself, the 90 minutes were purely incidental for Hibs, well aware they’d be lifting the trophy and starting another weekend of partying on the final whistle while St Mirren arrived needing a single point to complete their remarkable escape from the threat of relegation.

A Grant Holt goal – his third in his last four games – put them back in the play-off position only for Rory Loy’s equaliser to lift them not to eighth place but, with Dumbarton beaten by Falkirk, to seventh, tied on 39 points with both the Sons and Raith Rovers, the Stark’s Park side now embroiled in the play-offs as they bid to avoid dropping into League One.

Lennon said: “I’m pleased for St Mirren. They are a good club and they played well in the second half of season. I thought it was a good game. We were great for half an hour and they changed formation a little bit. After getting goal, I felt we eased off a little bit and came strong again. The game ebbed and flowed with good quality, both teams trying to win it.”