Darren McGregor on the Hibs title talk that led to third place, Europe and a cup final
Jack Ross had only been manager at the club a matter of months, many of the players sitting around him had joined less than a year before, and there were wide-eyed youngsters whose greatest ambition was to break into the first team and then see where that took them.
So, when the Hibs squad discussed targets for the season, it was up to the more weathered campaigners like Darren McGregor to give the dreams some context and ensure that anything they set their sights on was tethered to reality.
“I remember the gaffer asking the question,” recalls the life-long Hibs supporter, who has experienced the highs and lows as a fan and has also been part of near misses and incredible moments that will forever be etched into the club’s history since signing from Rangers in 2015.
“He actually asked if we could win the league, and I actually said I thought that was probably unrealistic, I didn’t want to put the dampers on too much!
“Then he asked a different question, he asked if we thought we could finish in a European place and win a cup and that changed the dynamic. Everyone said yes, we could.”
They are one game away from proving that faith in themselves was justified.
Fourth place was enough to guarantee them European football and having wrapped that up last month, they surpassed it by defeating Aberdeen on Wednesday night to ensure they will end the campaign in third.
Now, only the Scottish Cup final between themselves and St Johnstone stands between Hibs and the success they discussed in the pre-season meeting.
If everything does come together, it will be the kind of season few Hibs fans will remember, harking back to the 1950s.
“We’re in a great position to do that and the character of the guys over the course of the season has been phenomenal.
“It’s one last push to get another Scottish Cup. I try to tell the guys, and they’re probably bored of hearing it, about what it means to the club.
“So to cap it all off with third place and the cup would be beyond anybody’s wildest dreams, to be honest.”
There have been third place finishes, although since the 70s they have averaged fewer than one per decade, and there have been League Cup triumphs, even, eventually, a Scottish Cup win and semi-final and final places have been relatively commonplace over the years but combining finishing so high in the Premiership, booking European football until December, making the last four in one cup tournament and winning another would take them to heights they have rarely ascended to.
Smart recruitment, the manager and coaches’ ability to improve the players they already had, and a buy-in from the squad, including those for whom appearances have been scarce but the influence, competition and professionalism around the training ground ensured standards had to remain high, saw them all working towards the same ends.
While the rampant strikeforce have earned many of the headlines, hitting form and the back of the net at crucial times, Hibs secret has been greater balance to the side that includes star performers but has achieved due to the sum of the parts.
With an unselfishness that has seen them progress with a mix of graft and guile, experience and youth and the ideal balance of humility and belief - in themselves and each other - they are the epitome of a team.
Some who have been there for a while will say that covid has actually helped that, as lads with little to do away from the training ground, spent more time working on their game or spending time with each other at East Mains. That has fostered a togetherness that shows on the pitch, especially in matches like the one that decided the league position, at Pittodrie on Wednesday.
Backs to the walls at times, everyone dug their heels in, once again.
“For Paul Hanlon and I it felt like an extended defending drill, for 60 minutes all we did was defend and shuffle, but sometimes that’s what you have to do,” said McGregor.
“Our record up there isn’t great, so to come away with a 1-0 win, a clean sheet, the most away wins ever, is just testament to the guys character.”
Even in the absence of one of their top players, Joe Newell, the midfield was immense in helping fill the gaps in a defensive wall that refused to crumble, while the strikers have shown industry all term in tracking back, proving they are more than just goal machines.
“We’re all well aware of the year we have had with the pandemic and we’re running on shorter numbers with the staff and playing squads. But we’ve avoided major injuries, everyone has been fit and available.
“And it has just been such a successful season and hopefully we can put the cherry on top of the cake.”
If they do, beating a St Johnstone who stopped them in their tracks in the Betfred Cup and have been problematic in league head to heads, no-one can question the resolve of players who have spent the past year or so digging deep and answering critics. And, McGregor says that silver lining would elevate the season above 2016.
“When we won in 2016, the Scottish Cup was the one saving grace.
“We had lost the League Cup final to Ross County and then the play-off semi-final to Falkirk and we were going into it thinking if we lose this we could all be out of a job. The rest is history and we won it.
“And as a professional it was the best day of my life. Not even so much the day, the day after was just as good. So we’re hoping we can get over the line.”