For the fourth time in consecutive years, there was May misery for Hibs. Only this time, as evidenced by the impromptu standing ovation the team was given with a couple of minutes remaining of their Premiership play-off semi-final defeat by resilient Rangers, there was no requirement for widespread recrimination.
An obvious sense of deflation hung around Easter Road as Alan Stubbs’ team resigned themselves to a second consecutive season in the Scottish Championship after being unable to find a way past a Rangers team they had already beaten three times previously this season. But, viewing the bigger picture, there was also a realisation among an appreciative home support that, for the first time in more than five years, their team had exceeded pre-season expectations and regained some much-needed pride and respect.
After several summers of flux and apathy, there is at last a genuine sense of hope and stability around the club. Stubbs’ bullish talk, after the dust had settled on Saturday, about being confident of winning the league next season is evidence of this. Following relegation a year ago today, this type of belief was totally absent from Easter Road as anarchy and self-loathing took over. Even by the start of this season, with Stubbs having replaced Terry Butcher at the helm in mid-June, no-one realistically expected Hibs to be able to compete with Rangers and Hearts over the course of a campaign. That Hearts, having spent the previous year preparing for their Championship adventure, proved to be freakishly good - they racked up the biggest-ever second-tier points tally and were effectively champions by Christmas - meant the best possible outcome for Hibs, who lost four of their first six league games as new faces found their feet, was always likely to be giving Rangers a run for their money in the battle for second. Even allowing for the fact the Ibrox club spent most of the season in a state of turmoil themselves, for Hibs, with only a fraction of their resources, to have beaten them into second place was an accomplishment in itself for Stubbs’ emerging team.
Having done that, it will be deemed a failure by some that they were unable to subsequently get the better of Rangers over two legs when it mattered most. Yet that would be to ignore the fact that the Glasgow side are now a far more resolute outfit under Stuart McCall than the one that capitulated at Easter Road under the ever-beleaguered Kenny McDowall five months ago. Ever since unexpectedly breaking their Hibs hoodoo in Leith two months ago, Rangers have been on something of an upward trajectory, as evidenced by two impressive displays against Hearts in the closing weeks of the season. They again played with remarkable professionalism, organisation and spirit in the two legs of the play-off against Hibs. Ultimately, it boiled down to two well-matched teams slugging it, and the more ruthless side edging through, with Hibs, the more sure-footed team with the greater share of the possession, undermined once again by an inability to capitalise on dominance. For the amount of time they have had ball and the number of chances they have created this season, Hibs, who scored 70 goals in 36 league matches, should have been contending with Hearts (96 goals) to finish as top scorers in the division.
Yet, while Hearts had eight players who scored at least five league goals, Hibs had only three - Jason Cummings, Dominique Malonga and Scott Robertson, the sitting midfielder. Both Cummings and Malonga have had fine individual campaigns considering one is a teenager still learning the game and the other arrived late in the season, missed another section of it while on Africa Cup of Nations duty and has still been adapting to a pace of play which is evidently different to what he has been used to. This pair, if kept together, are sure to get the thick end of 40 goals between them in next season’s Championship, but there remains a feeling that, although they represent Hibs’ best two striking options, they have still not properly clicked as a partnership and that they can be far more ruthless when it matters in terms of attacking the numerous deliveries that come into the area and subsequently converting when opportunity knocks.
One can only imagine how things might have panned out had Hibs been successful in bringing back Leigh Griffiths on loan last autumn. It is a fair guess that the striker - a Celtic misfit at that point - would have capitalised on one of the several chances passed up in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk last month, while he would certainly have given them the type of sharpness in attack they were crying out for in the two play-off games.
Franck Dja Djedje or Farid El Alagui may yet emerge next season to ease the scoring burden on the established front two, but there remains a feeling that Stubbs may need to bolster his strikeforce with some fresh firepower. Failing that, more goals will be required from elsewhere on the park. Hibs’ midfield have been a joy to watch at times this season, controlling large segments of most matches, but Liam Craig, Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch and Fraser Fyvie - the midfield quartet that started on Saturday - have netted only eight league goals between them. For such an accomplished group, this tally should have been higher.
Rather than getting more goals out of them, however, Stubbs’ main concern with regard to his midfielders - the best crop Hibs have had for the thick end of a decade - will be how many of them he can keep. Robertson, Craig, McGeouch and Fyvie are all out of contract, while Allan, the Championship’s player of the year, is sure to attract bids from higher-ranked teams.
Robertson and Craig, two old heads in the team who rediscovered their form after a difficult previous season at Easter Road, have both already intimated they would love to stay if required. At this stage in their career, they have been around long enough to know that, even playing in the Championship, the grass isn’t necessarily greener away from one of the five biggest clubs in Scotland. The talented young trio of Allan, McGeouch and Fyvie, on the other hand, are more likely to feel that, at their age and with their stock reasonably high, they don’t want to commit to another campaign in the second tier. All three would be welcome additions to most teams in the country. Stubbs can only hope that these players will feel they owe a debt to Hibs for reviving their careers and appreciate the size of club they are currently working at.
If, as looks likely, some of them move on, this will provide an opportunity for Sam Stanton, Hibs’ best player in the second half of last season, to try and re-establish himself, while Stubbs, aided by his trusty scout Graeme Mathie, can be relied upon to recruit more quality to plug the gaps. Hibs will still be able to offer competitive wages in Scottish football terms, while the prospect of working for the popular Stubbs at a club which boasts impressive facilities means they will have no trouble continuing to attract talented players looking for a platform to get their careers back on track.
The defence shouldn’t need too much work for next season. Lewis Stevenson is likely to sign a new deal, leaving Liam Fontaine as the only obvious potential departure. The big Englishman has formed a fine partnership with Paul Hanlon and will take some replacing if he opts to head south again, although it may be that Keith Watson could be retained.
All told, even accounting for key men leaving, Hibs are in decent fettle for next season and, assuming Rangers see off Motherwell in the play-off final, they will start the campaign as hot title favourites. If Stubbs can retain the guts of this squad, allied to the benefit of having a full close-season to prepare, next season promises plenty for a club who, despite the setback of the past week, genuinely look to be heading in the right direction.