Darren McGregor believes Hibs are ready to re-emerge as a force in Scottish football, adamant no-one at Easter Road will be happy to simply settle for a return to the Premiership.
Although the club have spent three seasons out of the top flight, McGregor insists the foundations have been laid for Neil Lennon’s players to go from strength to strength,
And, he admitted, he and his team-mates will owe it to the fans who have stuck by them in increasing numbers not to rest on their laurels and regard the job as finished.
A remarkable crowd of almost 20,000 watched Hibs lift the Championship trophy with average gates for league matches at Easter Road having risen to more than 15,000, a figure not seen for almost 40 years.
The defender said: “When you see the crowd on Saturday, the fans at Tynecastle, the numbers that went to Hampden for the Scottish Cup semi-final, I think that’s proof we are a big club, well supported so it will be a case of not finishing fifth or sixth in the top division, the mandate must be top four.
“When you have 12,000 putting their hands in their pockets for season tickets and those at the gate then they’ll demand a level of consistency.
“The crowds have gone through the roof, they’ve been behind us all season and I think if you look at average attendances we are third in Scotland so that needs to translate into a league position.
“I think the crowds are a taste of things to come next season, I can see that happening against Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Aberdeen.”
Although Lennon has revealed he hopes to keep the bulk of his squad together, a large number of those players, including McGregor, are out of contract with many of them yet to agree new deals.
Lifelong Hibs fan McGregor has made clear his desire to stay but conceded that in the natural course of football changes will come over the summer months.
The 31-year-old said: “Leeann Dempster [chief executive] plays a phenomenal role in what she brings to the club, not just the football side of things but in the community. She’s been great, a real pivotal person in the club for me.
“She deserve lots of plaudits and I am sure the board won’t be resting on their laurels, they’ll be looking to build for the future, to build on the success of the Scottish Cup win and the Championship title. As a Hibs player that doesn’t come along too often, two medals in two years – but we need to keep building on that.
“I want to stay here because the infrastructure is here, we are a big club, we deserve to be in the Premiership and we’ve proved that this season.
“We have a solid foundation to kick on and be a force in Scotland. Why shouldn’t we be?”
Given 13 of Hibs’ previous 35 Championship matches had ended in draws, it perhaps came as little surprise that their final game against St Mirren ended in the same way, Saints striker Rory Loy cancelling out Grant Holt’s opener to ensure Championship safety for the Buddies.
Having spent four years in Paisley, McGregor admitted he was happy to see his old club complete their remarkable bid to escape the threat of relegation, Jack Ross’s players finally finishing seventh, above both Dumbarton and Raith Rovers on goal difference.
But, he insisted, he would have had no qualms in sticking away a winner for Hibs.
He said: “St Mirren saw me through two bad injuries so I do have an affinity and an affection for them but if I’d had the chance to score and win us the game I wouldn’t have had any second thoughts.
“But now the dust has settled, they have stayed up which is fair to them, they have probably been the form team at the tail end of the season.
“We’d have liked to have finished with a victory, everyone does. We knew we were promoted, all the hard work had been done so it was a case of going out to enjoy ourselves.
“You are hoping the intensity is going to be there. But I’m not going to lie, we knew the job was done and whether there was a ten or 15 per cent drop off I’m not sure.
“We finished with a draw, but we’ve had too many of them over the course of the season. But we have done it from start to finish over 36 games. You have to beat what’s in front of you and we’ve done that more often than not.
“In years gone by we have perhaps talked but not delivered, this season we have.
“We’d have liked to have turned a few of those draws into wins and that will be the aspiration for next season.
“The gaffer has come in and made us hard to beat, we only lost three times all season and only once at Easter Road.
“Those are favourable stats but we know we should be winning more, scoring more goals. It will be up to the board and the gaffer to sort things out for next season and hopefully we can add to the talented squad we already have here.”
While St Mirren had good reason to celebrate themselves on the final blast of referee Alan Muir’s whistle, McGregor insisted Saturday was all about Hibs, the after-match party beginning on the pitch with Lennon and his players appearing reluctant to leave as they lapped up the rapturous applause from the stands with many of them capturing the moment on their mobile phones.
They were special moments for McGregor as he took his daughter Mila and son Max with him as the players enjoyed the lap of honour that fan invasion had robbed them of following last season’s historic Scottish Cup triumph.
He said: “I took my time because after the Scottish Cup we didn’t get that chance. I was at St Mirren when they won the League Cup, I wasn’t involved and didn’t have children at the time but you always see football players take their kids out.”
And if Mila and months-old Max are perhaps too young to appreciate the day, McGregor joked that the photographs he has will act as proof in years to come that their dad did, in fact, play for Hibs.
“The photos are amazing,” he said, “I’ll be able to show them in later years that I was a football player even if I don’t look much like one when I’m kicking a ball around with them in the back garden that I played with Hibs and loved every minute of it.
“It’s a moment and a memory that we can treasure for life. It’s been unbelievable. My main aim coming here was just to play in the green and white and maybe get a derby win which I did in the first year.
“But to win the league and the Scottish Cup and to cap that off with the supporters player of the year as well was phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for any more.”