Hibs review of 2021: Rollercoaster of results and emotions but year ends on upward trajectory

If the last 12 months for Hibs was a fairground ride it would without doubt be one of those rollercoasters that takes a while to get to the top before plummeting downwards at a rate of knots and looping upwards at the last moment.

By Patrick McPartlin
Friday, 31st December 2021, 12:39 pm
Updated Friday, 31st December 2021, 2:43 pm
It has been a rollercoaster year for Hibs
It has been a rollercoaster year for Hibs

From the lows of exiting the League Cup at the semi-final stage, to the highs of recording a first third-place finish in 15 years; losing the 2020/21 Scottish Cup final in such a meek fashion but competing in the first-ever Europa Conference League; starting the season with a seven-game unbeaten run, to Jack Ross being relieved of his duties after a six-game losing streak in which 11 goals were conceded and just two scored, despite that memorable Premier Sports Cup semi-final result against Rangers.

Hibs ended 2021 with new manager Shaun Maloney leading the side to successive victories which, combined with the 1-0 win against Dundee under interim boss David Gray, saw the side enter the winter break on a three-game winning run.

The good

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There were a lot of good things about Hibs in 2021, even if most supporters might disagree with some of them.

Finishing third for the first time since the Tony Mowbray era and beating Aberdeen at Pittodrie – a venue which hasn’t been particularly kind to the Capital club in recent history – to do so suggested that perhaps the side was shaking off the “almost” tag that had plagued it since losing the Betfred Cup semi-final to St Johnstone and the previous year’s delayed Scottish Cup semi-final against rivals Hearts.

Martin Boyle’s continued progression from fast winger with not-much-else to key talisman saw him score 24 goals in the calendar year, culminating in that deadly hat-trick against Rangers at Hampden. That performance at the national stadium, especially in the first half, was as good as the side played all year, prompting the question: ‘Why can’t they play like that more often?’

Boyle’s importance to this team cannot be stressed enough. Whether he is scoring goals, laying them on for team-mates, or just causing mayhem down the right flank with his sheer pace, it is no wonder that he has attracted interest from other clubs. One suspects it would have to be silly money for the club to even consider parting with their star man.

Tying down key players on long-term deals such as Josh Doig, Christian Doidge, Paul Hanlon, and Joe Newell showed smart thinking from the club. Hibs have the guts of a good team already and keeping hold of important players allows Shaun Maloney to build something at Easter Road and, crucially, should mean less upheaval in the transfer window.

David Gray also deserves credit for his interim spell in charge of the team. It can’t have been an easy position to be in but he handled it well and had things gone differently at Hampden he might have done the unthinkable and led Hibs to another cup win.

Maloney recording two wins from his first two matches, against two teams that have already beaten Hibs this season, was good too. It’s early days yet but there are already signs that the football is faster and more exciting, which is what many fans wanted.

The club’s Under-18 side deserves praise for their efforts over the past 12 months. The wee Hibees remain unbeaten in all competitions in the 2021/22 season but looking back on the year as a whole, they lost just three of their 24 matches, winning 15 and drawing six. A total of 71 goals were scored while just 29 were conceded.

The youngsters’ performances have led to repeated calls from fans to give them a chance in the first team and things appear to be going in the right direction under Steve Kean’s leadership.

Hibernian Women also enjoyed good times in 2021, most notably beating Hearts in front of a record 5,512 fans at Easter Road, and doing so again in front of a Tynecastle record of 3,508. After a difficult period in which the team lost players to full-time football and went through a managerial change shortly before the start of the season and then had to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, things are starting to look up once more.

The bad

Not much, if anything, will feel as bad as last season’s Scottish Cup final. It was one thing that St Johnstone had beaten Hibs at three different venues in four months but the performance at Hampden was meek, weak, and alarming. Not even a superb penalty save from Matt Macey could spark a reaction from Hibs and they lost another final that they really should have had a chance of winning.

The manner of the side’s European exit was pretty painful too – Hibs should probably have beaten Rijeka at Easter Road in the first leg but when Kyle Magennis scored ten minutes after half-time to level the tie on the night and aggregate, the Capital club were in the ascendancy, until Darren McGregor’s red card and the loss of two goals all in the space of five minutes.

That six-game unbeaten run had some bleak moments as well – lethargic performances, a lot of red cards, few chances, and not much to cheer about for the supporters.

The ugly

While there were obvious reasons for playing games behind closed doors during the 2020/21 campaign, Scotland’s grounds were soulless, echoey, and cold. As journalists we were privileged to be able to watch games in person when so many thousands couldn’t, and it was a shame that there were no fans to celebrate Hibs finishing third, or back them in big cup games.

The return of supporters to stadiums at the start of the current campaign was a joyous event – even with the additions of masks, vaccine passports, and hand sanitiser.

Fans make football, there is no doubt, and it hopefully won’t be too long before capacity crowds are back in the stands.

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