2018 Hibs review: Neil Lennon's men flying high – but then wings clipped

Neil Lennon performed his famous aeroplane celebration against Rangers. Pic: SNS
Neil Lennon performed his famous aeroplane celebration against Rangers. Pic: SNS
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As 2018 dawned, most Hibs fans would have looked back on the first half of the season and reckoned their club had “done okay” on their return to the top flight after a three-year absence.

A win on the second day away to Rangers, a draw against Celtic, a victory and a draw with arch rivals Hearts were probably the highlights along with a run to the semi-finals of the Betfred Cup, where they’d given a good account of themselves before losing to a Brendan Rodgers’ side which was taking the first steps towards a “double treble.”

John McGinn signed for Aston Villa in the summer

John McGinn signed for Aston Villa in the summer

Decent, but not good enough as far as Neil Lennon was concerned, the Easter Road head coach never one to settle for okay.

The New Year actually got off to an unhappy start, club skipper David Gray – who had been troubled by injury fit enough to take his seat on the flight to the Algarve – where he and his team-mates were to prepare for the second half of the season only to suffer an Achilles tendon injury in the opening minutes of a friendly with Dutch side Willem II.

And off the field things also took a turn for the worse, Anthony Stokes, Danny Swanson and Martin Boyle all involved in some early-morning shenanigans at the team’s luxury hotel which resulted in all three being disciplined.

It also signalled the end for two-goal Scottish Cup hero Stokes, back at Hibs for a third spell as Lennon finally lost patience with the Republic of Ireland striker’s wayward behaviour.

Jamie Maclaren celebrates scoring against Celtic. Pic: SNS

Jamie Maclaren celebrates scoring against Celtic. Pic: SNS

But before he’d headed for the exit door, Australian internationalist Jamie Maclaren had arrived on loan from German club Darmstadt, keen to use the remainder of the season to push his case to be part of the Socceroos squad heading for the World Cup finals in Russia.

By the end of the month he’d been joined by Florian Kamberi, another player also looking for the first-team action he couldn’t get at Grasshopper Zurich, the Swiss striker marking his debut on the last day of January with a goal in a 2-1 win over Motherwell.

That fact, though, was overshadowed by an absolutely crazy deadline day merry-go-round involving Hibs, Celtic and Dundee.

Goalkeeper Scott Bain, who’d arrived only a few weeks earlier on loan from Dundee as cover for Ofir Marciano, departed with such haste to help solve the Hoops own goalkeeping crisis that he turned up in the east end of Glasgow still dressed in his Hibs training gear.

Hibs’ top scorer Simon Murray, for whom they’d turned down a bid from Turkish club Elazigspor, headed for Dens Park for the rest of the season while midfielder Scott Allan, who had been on loan at Dundee from Celtic, returned to Easter Road for a second time.

And, oh, goalkeeper Cammy Bell came in on a short-term deal having quit Kilmarnock that day.

By then Hibs were already out of the Scottish Cup, beaten by Hearts with the law of averages perhaps coming into play as the Easter Road side had done likewise to their city neighbours in each of the previous two seasons.

Lennon’s mid-season revamp, however, had an impact that possibly even he couldn’t have envisaged, Kamberi and Maclaren forging a lethal partnership which plundered 17 goals between them, while Allan picked up where he’d left off as he re-acquainted himself with John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch.

From that win over Motherwell, Hibs were to lose just one of their next 14 league matches – including further wins against Rangers, Hearts and Celtic – putting themselves firmly in the race for second place in the Premiership.

That dream was ended by a 2-1 win defeat at Tynecastle on the penultimate day of the season, provoking an outburst from Lennon in which he claimed he’d have to reconsider his future while branding his players “unprofessional”.

His failure to appear at training or his customary pre-match press conference ahead of the final game of the season – Rangers at home – prompted intense speculation that he would carry through his threat to quit, although his assistant Garry Parker insisted his absence was down to flu.

Come matchday Lennon was back in the dug-out to witness an astonishing game, Hibs racing into a three-goal lead only to find themselves 5-3 down before Maclaren completed his hat-trick to bring them level, the Aussie’s third goal prompting his head coach to race across the pitch in an “aeroplane” celebration.

That action, inevitably, brought an SFA touchline ban for Lennon, who’d found himself in trouble earlier in the year following a spat with referee Kevin Clancy at Rugby Park, but as disappointing as a fourth place finish might ultimately have been, it did bring Europa League football.

Lennon, however, was well aware he faced a summer challenge with McGeouch set to leave at the end of his contract, eventually joining Sunderland, while McGinn’s stay was marginally longer, starting the new season with Hibs before joining Aston Villa in for a fee of around £3 million at the beginning of August, the Capital club having rejected a string of derisory bids from Celtic.

McGinn did, though, hang around long enough to score against both NSi Runavik of the Faroe Islands and Greece’s Asteras Tripolis before Hibs were knocked out of the Europa League by Norwegian outfit Molde, bossed by now Manchester United interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Murray was another summer departure, making a surprise move to South African side Bidvest Wits, as was Swanson who rejoined St Johnstone for a third time, while Allan returned to Celtic and Brandon Barker went back to Manchester City at the end of his loan deal.

Lennon had warned he’d have a major rebuild on his hands although fans’ spirits were lifted as Kamberi agreed a three-year deal and Maclaren returned on a season-long loan. Former St Mirren midfielder Stevie Mallan was brought in from Barnsley and Daryl Horgan from Preston North End, while loan deals were agreed for goalkeeper Adam Bogdan, midfielder Emerson Hyndman and winger Thomas Agyepong from Liverpool, Bournemouth and Manchester City respectively.

The emergence of Ryan Porteous and Oli Shaw also augmented Lennon’s squad, while Dutchman Miquel Nelom and Charalampos Mavrias were later additions, although the Greek internationalist has already left in search of more regular first-team football.

Unsurprisingly, although they are not alone in what has been an entirely unpredictable past few months throughout the Premiership, Hibs have been inconsistent, a promising start giving way to a run of seven matches without a win, a record which saw them slip from second in the table and into the bottom six.

That run included a 0-0 draw with Hearts at Tynecastle where headlines were made for all the wrong reasons, Lennon struck by a coin thrown from the Main Stand while Hearts goalkeeper Bobby Zlamal was attacked by an away fan. Hibs striker Kamberi was red-carded, too, after a challenge on Oliver Bozanic sparked a melee amongst several players.

Results have recovered in recent weeks, most notably a win over Celtic and two draws with Rangers but, like last season, it’s those stalemates which have done much to hinder Hibs. They’ve had eight so far, more than any other team.

Hibs have, though, been badly hampered by injuries with Marciano, Gray, Paul Hanlon, Darren McGregor, Marvin Bartley and Agyepong having endured lengthy lay-offs while Kamberi and Maclaren have also been sidelined for a spell. Lennon has also been dealt further blows in the past few days with Porteous and Lewis Stevenson both out.

A sunshine trip to Dubai will allow the players to recharge the batteries, while the January break will, hopefully, see at least some of the injured players recover before the action kicks off again with a Scottish Cup tie against Elgin City.

And with Lennon having made clear his intention to strengthen his squad over the next few weeks, fans – their spirits low after that derby day defeat in the final game of the year – will anxiously be waiting to see if the transfer activity this month has the same impact as last year.