When Hibs plummeted meekly out of the Premiership under Terry Butcher in May 2014, they were arguably the most beleaguered, mockable club in Scotland.
As rival supporters gloated and elements of their long-suffering fanbase turned mutinous, their future prospects looked forlorn. The intervening three years, however, have been more reinvigorating than anyone at Easter Road could have hoped.
Granted, at the time, they’d have preferred to have returned to the top flight at the first attempt, the way Hearts did in 2015. But, with hindsight, there is little doubt that every Hibs supporter would have taken their own scenario over the last three years as opposed to that of their city rivals, who despite spending the last two years in the top flight are still searching for contentment.
On paper, three successive years in the second tier for one of the biggest clubs in the country looks like a period of drudgery. Not in Hibs’ case. The Easter Road have spent the post-Butcher Championship years rediscovering their mojo.
Although there have been some demoralising days along the way – from the defeat at Alloa Athletic right at the start of their period of top-flight exile to their agonising play-off defeat by Falkirk last May – this has generally been the best period for Hibs watchers since Tony Mowbray was in charge in the mid-Noughties. Running alongside their league form – 59 wins in 105 Championship games – under Alan Stubbs and then Neil Lennon, Hibs have reached the quarter-final stage at least in five of their six attempts at the domestic cup competitions. On top of a Scottish Cup triumph, two semi-finals (one of which they will contest this weekend), and a League Cup final, they have also enjoyed their finest European result in decades after winning away to Danish side Brondby in a Europa League qualifier last July.
Put simply, relegation has proved to be the best thing that could have happened to Hibs, who, even before Butcher’s ill-fated arrival, had been treading water at best in the top flight for several years.
There can be little doubt that they return to the top flight in more robust health than at any point in the modern era, with a galvanised and unified support, a group of players the fans can relate to and are proud of, an Edinburgh derby superiority complex, no Scottish Cup jinx, a long-term blueprint for prosperity under chief executive Leeann Dempster and head of football operations George Craig, and a genuine belief that they can conquer anyone in the country on their day.
Where three years ago they were timid and soft-centred, now they are bullish and brimming with bravado.
Dempster and Craig have provided the framework for this strong Hibs resurgence, and the two head coaches have duly capitalised. Although it rankles with Stubbs that he was unable to take them up in his two years at the club, the Liverpudlian and his popular assistants John Doolan and Andy Holden laid the foundations for yesterday’s title party as they set about cobbling together a team of genuine substance from the wreckage they inherited from Butcher. It was notable that of the XI that started against Queen of the South yesterday, eight were part of Stubbs’ squad.
Over the last ten months, Neil Lennon has instilled some extra steel and experience – in the shape of Ofir Marciano, Efe Ambrose, Grant Holt and Andrew Shinnie – to help them seal the deal at the third attempt.
While the players who got them over the line yesterday will hog the glory, the likes of Scott Allan, Scott Robertson, Dominique Malonga, Conrad Logan, Liam Henderson, Anthony Stokes and even short-term loanee Kris Commons can all claim to have played their part in a period when the bond between Hibs and their supporters was re-enforced after several years of strain and apathy.
For all that it has been a genuine team effort, it was fitting that the goal heroes yesterday as they sealed their long-awaited return to the top flight were David Gray – the first signing of the Championship rebuilding era, captain for two of the three years and Scottish Cup goal hero – and Darren McGregor, the man who has come to symbolise this team as the heroic Leith lad repelling all comers. Of those out of contract this summer, retaining these two leaders of the dressing room will be of paramount importance to making sure the team is ready for the challenge of competing in the Premiership.
Having worked so diligently to get things right at all levels of the club, the next test is to ensure momentum and feelgood factor is maintained in the top flight. Hearts and Rangers have both found that simply being back in the upper half of the Premiership is not a guarantee of harmony and happiness. Supporters of both clubs will say they enjoyed their respective title-winning processions more than they did heading towards third place on their first seasons back in the Premiership.
Although Hibs will be playing better teams next season, comparisons will continue to be made with the team that went on long unbeaten runs in the second tier under Stubbs and Lennon.
Given their current buoyancy, the resources at their disposal and the fact the last two Championship winners have gone straight into the Europa League places, there will be an expectation on Hibs to at least ensure a top-six finish next term. With Hearts currently struggling and Rangers still an unknown quantity under Pedro Caixinha, there is a genuine opportunity for Hibs to go and challenge for a top-four place next season. They are in a position of strength and under no pressure to cash in on star men John McGinn or Jason Cummings. Hearts were guilty of ripping up their Championship-winning team too quickly, while Rangers probably did likewise. Hibs know from their prosperity in the cups that they are already well equipped to compete with the top teams in Scottish football and can profit from maintaining continuity. As any manager would, Lennon will look to strengthen, but there is no need for wholesale change. This Hibs team has momentum, winning mentality, quality throughout and a genuine spirit. Perhaps most crucially, it also possesses popularity among the fans after delivering a Championship title on the back of the historic Scottish Cup triumph.
This is an intoxicating period for Hibs, and, with solid foundations put in place over the last three years, the smart money is on it continuing long into the future.