In stark contrast to a Hearts side floundering amid what seems to be a never-ending period of transition, Hibs are flourishing by maintaining continuity.
Of the eleven players that started the Easter Road side’s comprehensive 3-1 victory over their city rivals in the Scottish Cup on Wednesday, eight were part of Alan Stubbs’ squad last season. Five were members of the squad two seasons ago.
Hearts, incidentally, had four starters from last season’s squad, although only two – Jamie Walker and Arnaud Djoum – could claim to have had prominent involvement in helping Robbie Neilson’s team finish third in the Premiership. The squad has basically been ripped up over the last year or so.
Neil Lennon could have been forgiven for doing likewise when he took the reins from Stubbs at Hibs last June. After two seasons of failing to win promotion from the Championship, the former Celtic manager might have decided major surgery was required and that Stubbs’ squad lacked the required mentality to get the job done. Many managers may simply have seen taking on a new job as a chance to stamp their own mark on their team by delving into the transfer market.
Instead Lennon assessed the squad and saw plenty potential among a group of players who had overcame a traumatic ending to last season to win the Scottish Cup. Goalkeeping department aside, he was thrilled with the pool he inherited. His desire to keep a fairly settled dressing-room was underlined by the fact he moved to secure Jordon Forster, the previously out-of-favour defender, on a new contract when he could easily have recruited a new player from outwith the club instead. Thus far, the manager has been vindicated for keeping changes to a minimum.
Grant Holt and Brian Graham have added extra physicality to the attack and Chris Humphrey has brought an injection of pace out wide, but generally this is the same personnel that showed so much promise under Stubbs by winning a raft of big games last season and, through last winter, were threatening to pip Rangers to the Championship title.
It would be stretching a point to suggest that Lennon has brought greater consistency to Hibs since they are currently five points worse off than at the 24-game stage last season, but they appear to have extra steel about them this season. Although Hearts played even more meekly on Wednesday than they did in the equivalent match a year previously under Robbie Neilson, Hibs’ performance was a notch up from the one they managed last February. Where last season’s victory was backs-to-the-wall at times in the second half, on Wednesday they looked in total control from start to finish.
The same could be said of the first games at Tynecastle. Last season Hibs needed to fight back from 2-0 down to salvage a replay. This time round they always looked comfortable and destined to take their hosts back to Easter Road. There is an air of maturity and experience about the team, which was possibly missing at crucial points last season.
The defensive pool of David Gray, Darren McGregor, Liam Fontaine, Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson have gone from strength to strength this season, certainly in terms of keeping the back door shut. It speaks volumes about how strong Hibs are that they have coped so well in the absence of the influential Hanlon, a player who is now at a level which would allow him to command a start at any club in Scotland outwith Celtic.
Marvin Bartley, as he has been for much of his time at Hibs, continues to be the man for the big occasion. The big Englishman is routinely a dominant and destructive midfield presence in high-profile matches such as Wednesday’s and is one of several genuine leaders in Lennon’s squad. With warriors like Gray, McGregor, Bartley and the fearless John McGinn, it is easy to see why the Easter Road side can no longer be considered a soft touch. This is before we even consider the the effect of Holt, a wily and physical 35-year-old who, despite his lack of goals, has acted as an effective foil and mentor for Jason Cummings.
The young striker is one of only three players who has remained at the club since they were relegated three years ago, but he has played as big a part as any in restoring their credibility on the park in the intervening period. Having established himself as a goal-scorer of substance in Scotland’s second tier, Lennon has been busy cajoling the 21-year-old to take his game to a new level. Instead of praising him for his goals, he points out the ones he misses or aspects of his play that need attention, as he did in last Saturday’s post-Raith Rovers rant. The reward was one of Cummings’ best displays for the club on Wednesday.
With a sound structure and scouting network in place at Hibs which helped Stubbs assemble a strong pool of players, Lennon has been able to work with a settled and united group, implementing subtle tweaks here and there to make them more hard-nosed and mentally strong, but generally allowing the tight-knit nature of a squad who made history and shared life-changing memories last May to remain intact.
Hibs, as they have done for some time, continue to have the look of a Scottish Premiership top-four-team-in-waiting as they enter the business end of the season in contention for a Championship and Scottish Cup double. Lennon’s shrewd decision to maintain a level of familiarity seems certain to bear fruit.