Grant Holt speaks on surprise Hibs move, winning the league, Sunshine on Leith, and beating Hearts
There was an element of surprise when Hibs signed Grant Holt in the summer of 2016.
The Easter Road side had experienced the unmatchable high of winning the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years in May but had, for the second year running, failed to return to the Scottish Premiership from the second tier. Cup-winning manager Alan Stubbs had departed suddenly for Rotherham and former Celtic and Bolton boss Neil Lennon was installed as his successor.
A third year in the Championship had been unplanned. Any more would be unthinkable. Lennon set about adding players to his team who would help fire the club back to the top flight.
"It was bizarre, really. I knew Neil from my time at Nottingham Forest, I'd just finished at Rochdale and was available on a free,” Holt told the Hibee Buzz podcast.
"Neil gave me a call and said, 'Look, would you be interested in coming up?'”
Holt knew all about Scottish football, hailing from just over the border in Carlisle, and was intrigued enough to have the conversation.
“Neil said, 'We'll get you a flight up and you can come and have a look round and see what you think'.
“I was due back to Carlisle after a couple of days but while I was there I ended up taking part in training and got offered a contract at the end of that.
“I quite liked the group of boys and thought it was a good opportunity for me. That was literally it – came up for a few days and ended up signing a contract.”
There was pressure on Holt to help deliver the promotion that had eluded Hibs for two seasons on the bounce but also an expectation that those still at the club had to finally meet the target of returning the side to the Premiership.
"Winning the Scottish Cup after so long, that feeling was great but the disappointment at not getting promotion was still lingering,” Holt recalled.
"I was under no illusions what our job was – get a decent run in Europe, let the fans have a good time and then try and win the league. That was the mandate.”
Hibs’ standing as the ‘big club’ in the league made them a scalp for the other nine teams in the division, and there was added pressure from the huge travelling support that followed them from Fife to Dumfries and further afield.
“We were turning up at grounds with 3,000 fans in tow, so there's always an expectation home or away. The Hibs fans deserve a certain level of performance because they turn up in their numbers, and travel in their numbers,” Holt continued.
“There was pressure because we'd been in that league for too long. I think if we hadn't done it that year there would have been massive riots. We needed to do it with the squad we had.
“At times that pressure got to some of the lads a little bit but collectively I think we handled it quite well.”
Senior group… and young lunatics
The group melded experience with youth, creating a combination capable of winning the title, which they did.
“There was a really good senior group, who are still here – Darren McGregor, Dave Gray, Lewy Stevenson – and have been for a while; Marvin Bartley, myself, Brian Graham, people like that, and then the young lunatics John McGinn, Martin Boyle, and Jason Cummings and all the shenanigans that came with that.
"We bought in some good loan signings as well like Andrew Shinnie, had a really good group and everyone got on really well. It just worked.”
It is customary for anyone with a connection with Hibs to wax lyrical about ‘Sunshine on Leith’. The Proclaimers’ track has become an unofficial club anthem and has been belted out at European nights, at cup finals, and in Edinburgh derbies.
Holt is no different.
‘I need to hear Sunshine on Leith’
“At the start of the season there was a screening of the Scottish Cup DVD. I didn't have to go but I wanted to go and watch it,” he explained.
“I remember Hibs winning it and the scenes afterwards – we used to watch Old Firm games in Carlisle and used to see the derbies as well.
“So I thought I'd go and watch the screening and it was really, really good, hearing the fans singing Sunshine on Leith and the atmosphere that went with it.
“It's a bit of a cliche but it was a 'hairs standing up on the back of your neck' moment. I remember thinking, 'at some point, I need to hear this song in person, ringing out'. Especially at a midweek game with the lights on and everything.”
Holt was confident he would hear the song at some point but thought he might have to wait until the end of the season. But after the draw was made for the fourth round of the Scottish Cup, he would hear it considerably earlier – and he credits that win with sparking the eventual title success.
“We got Hearts in the cup again, and were the underdogs – for some reason everyone thought they were going to spank us – but we knew we were better than that. We knew we could hold our own against anyone in the Scottish Premiership, the squad was far too good for the Championship,” Holt said.
“So when we got drawn against them the only thing in our minds was beating them. Even at their place, which we probably should have done.
“At Easter Road, to get on the scoresheet, win, and be standing on the pitch, walking around under the lights and hearing Sunshine on Leith ringing out… that was where I thought, this is what I wanted from this spell.
“The bounce we got from beating Hearts probably gave us what we needed to go on and win the title.”