Hibs review of 2017: Title winners continue in upward curve

The Hibs squad celebrate winning the Championship
The Hibs squad celebrate winning the Championship
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It will be the year best remembered as the one Hibs finally clinched promotion, ending three seasons exiled in the Championship.

They had begun their third attempt to claw their way out of the second tier of Scottish football as over-whelming favourites to take the title, the way apparently clear with Hearts and Rangers having departed the scene.

Jason Cummings signed for Nottingham forest

Jason Cummings signed for Nottingham forest

And although ultimately a winning margin of 11 points looks comfortable enough it didn’t, as chairman Rod Petrie conceded at the Edinburgh club’s recent AGM, feel that way at times.

Twice before Neil Lennon’s players had hit the top of the table but when they did so for the third time with a 3-0 win at home against closest rivals Dundee United at the turn of the year, they were there to stay. However, it wasn’t until April 15 that everyone could breath easy, a Darren McGregor double helping Hibs ease to a 3-0 victory at home over Queen of the South and an unassailable lead, the celebrations having been put on ice with three successive draws – Hibs were to have 14 of them in the season – in the preceding weeks.

Seeing the old First Division trophy handed over following the final game of the season was undoubtedly the highlight of the year but, as head coach Lennon, inset, insisted only a few days ago, overall 2017 was a good year for Hibs, promotion the single objective but success also coming in both the Scottish and League Cups as they made the semi-finals in both competitions.

The previous season had, of course, seen Hibs shatter their Scottish Cup hoodoo, 114 years of torment ended with a 3-2 win over Rangers, only for then boss Alan Stubbs to surprise everyone by quitting in favour of English Championship side Rotherham United in what proved to be an ill-fated move.

Anthony Stokes signed on at Easter Road for a third time

Anthony Stokes signed on at Easter Road for a third time

Lennon, though, had inherited a squad brimming with confidence, only a few minor tweaks considered necessary although Kris Commons and then Efe Ambrose made important contributions as emergency loanees, while top scorer Jason Cummings was persuaded to sign a new deal in the face of a reported £1.5 million bid from Peterborough United.

It was a bold decision by the Easter Road board, putting football ambition ahead of hard cash, the gamble being that the striker’s goals would pay off in the long run.

And so it transpired, Cummings netting 23 strikes in all competitions, including two as United first footed Hibs six days into the new year.

Having won the Scottish Cup, Hibs began their defence with an 8-1 victory over Junior side Bonnyrigg Rose at Tynecastle and then returning to the Gorgie ground to face Hearts just as they had done a year previously.

Simon Murray made a stunning start to his Hibs career ' including scoring the winner in the Capital derby

Simon Murray made a stunning start to his Hibs career ' including scoring the winner in the Capital derby

History was to repeat itself, Hibs taking a draw – although in far less dramatic fashion than 12 months earlier – and finishing the job on their own turf. They did make it back to Hampden for yet another visit to the national stadium only to lose 3-2 to Aberdeen in the semi-final, having conceded two soft goals in the opening minutes, hauling themselves level only for Jonny Hayes’ late shot to deflect past goalkeeper Ofir Marciano.

The Israeli internationalist had spent the season on loan from Ashdod but that became a permanent arrangement as Hibs moved quickly to freshen up their squad ahead of their return to the big time.

Lifelong Hibs fan Danny Swanson was snapped up on a pre-contract from St Johnstone, Ambrose returned on a two-year deal while a clutch of players who were at the end of their contracts agreed extended stays. Veteran striker Grant Holt, however, moved on while James Keatings opted for Tannadice in search of more regular game time and Fraser Fyvie dithered over his offer which was ultimately withdrawn, leaving him to also head for Tayside. Holt and Chris Humphrey were released as was Andrew Shinnie at the end of his loan from Birmingham City.

Alex Harris and Danny Handling, both of whom having had injury problems, left having failed to fulfil their early promise while Sam Stanton went out on loan for a third spell, this time to United.

Striker Simon Murray made the journey in the opposite direction and hit the ground running, scoring ten goals in his first seven games, and Steven Whittaker returned for a second time, almost immediately earning himself a return to the Scotland squad.

Lithunian internationalists – midfielder Vykintas Slivka and striker Deivydas Matulevicius – also arrived although neither has made the impact they’d have hoped to achieve, so much so that the latter has already been told he is free to find a new club. Brandon Barker was another new face, the lightning fast winger joining on a season-long loan from Manchester City before Anthony Stokes became a late addition to the squad, the Republic of Ireland player back at Easter Road for a third time.

Long before then Cummings had gone, the bargain struck between him and the club the previous summer holding true as Hibs accepted a bid from Nottingham Forest but standing firm to reject the English Championship side as they made three offers for midfielder John McGinn, an approach which was branded by Lennon as “laughable.”

Backed by record season tickets sales Hibs made an impressive start, beating Partick Thistle and then leaving Ibrox with a hard-fought win over Rangers only to be reminded it wouldn’t all be plain sailing. A home defeat by Hamilton brought everyone back down to earth although thus far Lennon and Hibs have more than held their own, ending 2017 fourth in the table, a satisfying position but one which might have been improved upon but for points being allowed to slip through their fingers.

However, in recent weeks fans have again been lifted by seeing 19-year-old Oli Shaw emerge from the club’s youth ranks to cement his place in Lennon’s squad, the youngster stepping from the bench to notch his first goal as Hibs lost to Celtic in the semi-final of the Betfred Cup at Hampden, repeating the feat as the Hoops were held to a 2-2 draw for the second time this season and then seeing a goal wrongly ruled out in the recent league derby at Tynecastle.

There was, though, as Petrie revealed to shareholders, a cost to be paid for running Hibs as a Premiership side during those three years in the Championship, a loss of £277,000 for the financial year, some way shot of the target of at least breaking even but results which, according to the chairman “can be viewed with satisfaction,” a comment which he’d undoubtedly also make of the season so far.