Alan Stubbs believes Hibs have spent their three-year Premiership exile implementing a structure that will allow them to prosper on their return to the top flight.
The Liverpudlian was head coach for the first two seasons after they dropped into the Championship in May 2014, and although he was unable to win promotion, he went down as a hero by leading them to a first Scottish Cup triumph in 114 years last May.
Although Stubbs left last summer to take the reins at Rotherham United, the guts of his Hibs squad was kept intact by his successor, Neil Lennon, who led them to title glory this season.
The former Bolton, Celtic and Everton defender was thrilled for the players and for those who employed him in June 2014 – chairman Rod Petrie, chief executive Leeann Dempster and head of football operations George Craig – as they finally achieved their objective of returning to the top flight. He believes Hibs have developed solid foundations in recent years that can allow them to move swiftly to the upper echelons of the Premiership – and remain there.
“I’m delighted for the players, Leeann, the chairman, George, [head of recruitment] Graeme Mathie and all the rest of the staff,” Stubbs told the Evening News. “Having worked with those people, I know all the hard work they have put in to put in a really good structure with good people who are prepared to work hard. Now it’s come to fruition and they’ve got the reward that they deserve.
“They’ve used these years in the Championship well. They’ve employed and recruited some very good people to make sure that what happened three years ago doesn’t happen again. There were obviously mistakes made before, but the most important thing is being able to put those mistakes right, and everyone at Hibs has certainly done that.”
In the previous two seasons, Stubbs’ Hibs team were beaten to the title by Hearts and Rangers before losing in the play-offs on each occasion. He was pleased to see Lennon, his former Celtic team-mate, complete the job of winning promotion. “Success unfortunately never happens overnight,” he said. “When Leeann, George and the chairman put their trust in me, we had some success and we also had quite a bit of disappointment in terms of not getting promoted, but I’ll always say the previous two years were probably the most competitive the Championship has ever been.
“I think, realistically, [of the three seasons in the Championship] this season always looked Hibs’ best chance of going up. It was always going to be hard to actually do it but Neil’s done a really good job and deserves a lot of credit for getting it across the line.”
Hibs have often found it tough being the big fish in a smaller pond over the last three seasons, whereas they have lost only one of their 13 cup matches against Premiership sides in regulation time during this period. Stubbs believes they are better suited to playing the country’s stronger teams and expects them to take the transition to top-flight football in their stride next season.
“There’s never been a question over the players’ ability to compete in the Premiership because they’ve continually done that in the cups,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s been particularly surprised when they’ve beaten a Premiership team. That’s a sign of the quality Hibs have got. If anything, it will suit them better playing against Premiership players week in, week out because they won’t have as many teams camping in against them and making themselves hard to break down. Teams will come at them and take the game to Hibs, which I think will definitely benefit them.”
After winning the Championship title with three games to spare last weekend, Stubbs believes his old side are equipped to maintain the feelgood factor by getting past Aberdeen in Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final. The Easter Road team are underdogs due to the Dons currently being second in the Premiership, although Hibs can take heart from the fact they defeated Derek McInnes’s team 2-0 at home in the League Cup early last season. “Aberdeen are rightly favourites – they’ve had another fantastic season under Derek McInnes,” said Stubbs. “But Hibs have got nothing to lose. They’ve got a free shot at Aberdeen. I believe all the pressure is on Aberdeen. They’re the Premiership club and realistically the main challengers to Celtic at this moment in time.
“Hibs will go into the game with nothing to fear. They’ll be buoyed by the fact that, over the last three years, they’ve only lost once to a Premiership team in 90 minutes. If that knowledge doesn’t give you confidence, then nothing will. Aberdeen will be confident in terms of their own form going into the game but they’ll be very wary of Hibs and what they can do.”