Reflecting on his four fulfilling years at Hibs, Dylan McGeouch is clearly proud to have played a major part in one of the most significant periods in the club’s history.
When he first arrived at Easter Road in September 2014, initially on a season-long loan from Celtic, the then-21-year-old encountered a club engulfed by “doom and gloom” and in serious need of an injection of life. Relegation at the end of the previous campaign had left them in disarray and the rebuild under Alan Stubbs had got off to a grim start, with three defeats in the opening four matches leaving them third bottom of the Scottish Championship when McGeouch and Jake Sinclair, a Southampton winger, checked in on loan on transfer-deadline day. Four years ago today, McGeouch and Sinclair, along with a certain Dominique Malonga, made their debuts in a scrambled, come-from-behind 3-2 Championship win at home to Cowdenbeath.
While Sinclair was barely seen again in a green shirt, McGeouch overcame a tough baptism to become a Scottish-Cup winning Hibs legend and developed into a Rolls-Royce of a midfielder by Scottish Premiership standards before earning himself a maiden Scotland call-up and a move to Sunderland this summer. His classy and composed midfield play underpinned Hibs’ impressive rise from the Championship doldrums to the upper echelons of the Premiership and helped the club reconnect with a previously disenchanted support. Memories of “the journey” he was part of in Leith will always be cherished by McGeouch.
“It wasn’t looking the best when I first went to Hibs, there was quite a bit of doom and gloom about the place,” said McGeouch in his first interview with the Evening News since leaving Easter Road for Wearside. “I came in pretty much at the start (of the post-relegation rebuild) and we took our time getting going but once we got there we had a great team spirit and the fans started believing again.
“When I ended up leaving we were at a stage where we couldn’t have had any more praise from the fans. Over the four years you could see the difference in the club, the changing room, the feel about the place, the fans, the record season-ticket sales. It was a great turnaround, fighting for second spot in the Premiership right up to the second-last game of the season. As players, we couldn’t have given any more for the club. We turned it right round and it was great to have that journey.”
Although the play-off defeats against Rangers and Falkirk in his first two seasons at the club were demoralising at the time, McGeouch believes the three years spent in the Championship have ultimately proved of benefit to Hibs.
“I think the club needed that period, to go down and restart and build back up,” he said. “Everyone had their eye on promotion in the first year, but when I first came in Stubbsy barely had enough players to put a team out. He had to start again and bring a lot of new players in so it wasn’t the biggest disaster in the world that we didn’t get promoted that season. Although it was disappointing to lose to Rangers in the play-offs, when you look back now, it was probably for the best that the club had an extra couple of years in the Championship to get everything right.
“Winning the Scottish Cup obviously made it easier to take for the fans that we didn’t get promoted in the first two years and when you look back now I think we took good steps over the four years. In the four seasons I was there we were always a good team but we added different things each year and got a stronger mentality. Once we eventually did come up, we had everything required for the Premiership and we were flying. We weren’t content just to be top six, we were fighting for second. The club is in a great situation now, very stable, the fans are turning out in numbers and it’s a great club to be at.”
While McGeouch helped Hibs reignite, the club similarly helped McGeouch catch fire. When he first arrived at Easter Road, four months shy of his 22nd birthday, he hadn’t started a competitive game for almost a year and had just returned north following a spell on loan at Coventry City from Celtic which had brought him only eight substitute appearances. “I had just been playing youth football and was in and out of first-team football getting 20 minutes here and there so I needed to get first-team games,” McGeouch recalls. “Stubbsy brought me in and gave me that trust to play week in, week out in the man’s game and it was great just getting used to the demands of that. Once I had a taste of that, it was hard to go back and be a bit-part player at Celtic so that’s when I moved on and went back to Hibs permanently.
“As the years went on, I played in a couple of finals, won a cup, won a promotion and was fighting for second place in the Premiership. I ended up in the team of the year, voted for by my fellow players, and getting the Hibs player of the year and the fans’ player of the year. I felt I got better as the seasons went on and last season was a great one to finish it on. Last season was my best, everyone could see that. In previous seasons, I had lots of wee niggles that hindered my progress but last season I didn’t have that and I got a run of games. I felt after I got ten, 15 games in a row I really kicked on and showed the best of myself in an excellent team.”
In an era when long-term stints at particular clubs are rare for footballers, McGeouch enjoyed the fact Hibs were able to maintain a relatively settled and close-knit squad throughout his four years. “There was a great core to the squad and that was key,” he said. “We were very close and had a great team spirit. Most players that came in couldn’t speak highly enough of the squad and the changing room. We had a really good group and it was great to be part of that.”
As with every Hibs player involved on the 21st May 2016, picking a highlight from McGeouch’s time at Easter Road isn’t difficult. “There were a few,” he said. “The derbies were always great occasions – you can’t beat them, the whole city was hyped up for them. But winning the cup was the pinnacle. That was probably the best weekend of my life. I’ll never forget the scenes that weekend. The memories of the fans and the players together, everything about it was unbelievable.”
McGeouch, at 25 and in the form of his life, knew long before the end of last season that he was likely to move on in search of a new challenge upon the expiry of his contract, but he was sad to call time on a special period in his life and development as a footballer.
“It was a tough decision to leave because I had a lot of good memories and a lot of good friends at the club,” he said. “The club had given me the platform to play in the first-team environment and kick on, so it was always going to be tough to leave. The last day of the season was emotional, saying ‘bye’ to everyone and stuff like that. It was tough but I felt like it was time to kick on and try a new adventure and see how I got on.”
That new adventure would be at Sunderland after Jack Ross, the former St Mirren manager, offered him the chance to become part of his rebuild at the Stadium of Light following the Wearside club’s consecutive relegations from the Premier League to League One. Sunderland are currently fourth in the table, with McGeouch having worked his way back into the starting lineup for the past two matches after missing the start of the campaign with a minor injury.
“When I spoke to the manager I was really excited to go down and join him,” he said. “He’s been great since I’ve been here and I think he can really take my game to the next level. The size of the club is phenomenal. The stadium, the training ground, the facilities, everything about it is unbelievable. I just got that feeling that this was the place I wanted to come and kick on again.
“They’re a club in the same situation as Hibs when I joined, in a place where they probably shouldn’t be considering the size. The manager’s brought in a lot of new players so hopefully we can have the same sort of turnaround we had at Hibs and get it back to where it should be.”