It was the day that Hibs supporters had longed for, ever since Jason Cummings’ penalty miss against Hamilton in the Premiership play-offs consigned the club to second-tier football in May 2014.
Admittedly, immediate promotion from the Championship was an objective that failed to materialise. That said, last May’s momentous Scottish Cup triumph certainly softened the blow for the Easter Road faithful after enduring the agony of more play-off defeats and watching first Hearts and then Rangers make it back to the big time.
Since his appointment 14 months ago, head coach Neil Lennon has always insisted the potential of the club is what attracted him to the job in the first place.
Those assertions came to light on Saturday with Easter Road packed with more than 17,000 spectators for the visit of Partick Thistle as the 2017/2018 Premiership campaign kicked-off. A deafening applause greeted both sets of players as they emerged from the tunnel, befitting of an occasion that had been three years in waiting. The noise was cranked up a notch even before a ball was kicked as the Championship winners’ flag was unfurled by club chairman Rod Petrie.
The biggest cheer of the afternoon, though, was spared for referee Nick Walsh’s full-time whistle as Hibs came from behind to secure their first victory in the top flight since a 2-1 success over Ross County three-and-a-half years ago – Martin Boyle, Steven Whittaker and a second-half Simon Murray penalty ensuring Chris Erskine’s seventh-minute opener didn’t dampen what was a carnival atmosphere down Leith way.
“We are now looking like a big club again so to have over 17,000 in the building and going home with the three points after a great performance then it’s all good,” a delighted Lennon explained. “The fans here have really been amazing since I walked in the door.
“We got off to a really poor start but you can get a bit like that, a little bit drowsy with the atmosphere and all the pump beforehand. But the reaction from the team was fantastic and I thought we dominated the game; goal attempts, our passing was good and our physical attributes were excellent.
“We’ve beaten a very good team so I’m thrilled, but it’s just the start as we’ve got big games coming up, both tomorrow [against Ayr United at home in the Betfred Cup] and this Saturday [away to Rangers]. I can’t ask for any more from what I’m seeing from the players.”
Lennon had made two changes to the side that had disposed of Alloa 3-0 in the Betfred Cup last weekend, Paul Hanlon replacing the suspended Darren McGregor and Danny Swanson – the former St Johnstone player having missed the trip to Clackmannanshire due to suspension – being preferred to teenager Fraser Murray, who had to make do with a place on the bench. Captain David Gray was also serving a one-match suspension, so Hanlon skippered the side.
It didn’t take long, though, for Alan Archibald’s visitors to briefly dampen the mood as Erskine coolly finished beyond Ofir Marciano into the far corner from 12 yards having been played in by an incisive pass from Steven Lawless.
However, last season’s Championship winners were only behind for a matter of minutes. John McGinn embarked on a lung-bursting run from the middle of the park, carving open the Partick defence and, from the Scotland internationalist’s intended pass to Murray, the ball deflected favourably into the path of Boyle and he tucked home the equaliser from close range.
Hibs were now breaking at speed with every opportunity and a deft touch from Murray into the path of Swanson fell favourably for Whittaker, be he could only fire straight at goalkeeper Tomas Cerny.
The 33-year-old, however, was to find the back of the net to give Lennon’s side the lead 12 minutes before the interval. Swanson was the architect this time, jinking his way down the left side of the penalty box before sending a low cross into the path of the onrushing former Norwich City player, who prodded his effort into the bottom right corner. It was Whittaker’s first goal in a green-and-white jersey since netting in the 3-3 stalemate with Rangers at Easter Road just over ten years ago.
Although the Thistle defence was breached just once during the second half – the industrious Murray converting a penalty six minutes after the restart following a foul on Boyle by former Easter Road defender Callum Booth – Lennon set aside praise for the endeavours of his players. “Simon was superb. His first touch, his willingness to close people down, to take the penalty and score so that will give him a real shot of confidence,” he said. “Whittaker was brilliant . . . [Efe] Ambrose, McGinn so the big players turned up. It couldn’t have been easy for them going a goal down, so I was looking for a reaction and we got that so that’s a positive.
“There are things we can learn from the game. I said to them they had to manage it and they did that. We didn’t press Partick early enough for the goal but after that our pressing was really good and we won the ball high up the pitch and we punished them. We’ve got players that can hurt teams.”
One thing for sure is that Rangers boss Pedro Caixinha, who was perched in the upper tier of the West Stand, has plenty food for thought ahead of this weekend’s Ibrox showdown.