Hibs still have high ambitions and plenty of incentives as season offers possibility to cement their place in history
Jack Ross does not ferret through Hibs’ history books looking for new records to target, but he admits that an awareness of any that his team are edging close to, does tend to offer further incentive.
Having come up short against Livingston, his men still require just one more away win to ensure their highest ever league return. And they have two more opportunities to deliver, against Rangers at Ibrox on Sunday and against Aberdeen, at Pittodrie, on May 12.
They are also within touching distance of the Leith club’s first top tier top three finish in 16 years. Seven points clear of the Dons, with just five games remaining, and with a far superior goal difference, if they see things through, they would become one of only four of squads to have delivered such a lofty league return in Ross’ lifetime.
The covid pandemic has thrown up another talking point, though. Already semi-finalists in two cup competitions this season (albeit the Scottish Cup appearance at Hampden was the product of the 2019/20 campaign), they could make it three if they can build on Monday night’s success in their opening 2020/21 tie, against Queen of the South.
Knowing your route
The compressed nature of the outstanding domestic knockout competition means that Hibs have an idea who they will be required to overcome if they are to, once again, reach the semi-finals.
Stranraer are up next, in 11 days’ time, and if they safely negotiate that trip to Stair Park, either Motherwell or Greenock Morton will provide the final barrier to Hibs and one of their most successfully consistent seasons, in half a century.
Not since 1950-51 have the club backed up a top-three finish in the country’s premier league, with two cup runs as deep as the semi finals, to do that with, effectively, a third one postponed from the previous campaign thrown into the mix for good measure would merely underline their achievements and the consistency shown by this group of players.
There have, of course, been seasons that have delivered silverware, rather than just plaudits, a larger share of the league’s prize pot and European qualification, and Hibs remain intent on building on those previous semi-final showings and actually going all the way this time. Not least because as well as adding a trophy to the collection that is now just one of two scenarios that will ensure Ross and his squad are guaranteed European football, all the way into December.
As third-place finishers, Hibs would enter European football at the second qualifying round of the new Conference League, but the cup winners will come in at the play-off stage of the Europa League, knowing that even if they lose, they will be parachuted into the group section of the Conference, with fixtures until at least December 9.
With Rangers and Celtic finishing first and second in the Premiership, and preoccupied with Champions League ambitions, Scottish Cup success for either of them would also benefit Hibs, with the next highest finisher in the league and not, as it once was, the cup runners-up claiming the cast-off rewards.
The fact that the two Glasgow clubs have been drawn against eachother in the next round is a blow to Hibs, halving the chance of them doing Hibs a favour. That will have left Hibs even more focused to take matters into their own hands and earn their place among the best teams who have gone before them.
Because while they need to flick back to 1950/51 and then 1946/47 to find predecessors who have finished in the top three and weighed in with two cup runs that reached at least the semi final stage, no team in Hibs’ history has ever finished that high in the league, reached the semi final in one cup competition and lifted a trophy in the other.
It all means that as Hibs’ season marches closer to its denouement, there is still plenty to play for, as both league and cup continue to present juicy incentives.
Ross’ view on it
“I think like a lot of these things, I don’t think you’re aware of them until you get to this period of the season and then you start to realise what you might be achieving,” said Ross, when he spoke ahead of the trip to Livingston about converting the potential of that away win record into something real. “This club has a log, long history and there have been some really good teams and squads as well, and so many talented players. So, as a squad, if we can produce that best ever away record then that would be brilliant and the players just deserve enormous praise for it.”
But now there are even bigger accolades, as well as the possibility of silverware, and the auxiliary rewards that will benefit them well into next season, to aim for.
“They already deserve enormous praise for the success they have had to date, across the season,” said the Easter Road gaffer, aware that for all the praise they have gleaned for their league returns, their inability to progress beyond the most recent semi-finals has, perhaps, tainted some of their own memories of the season, as well as the fans’.
By smashing records rather than dreams, they can still make that right.
“Records are important and we should continually strive for them as a group,” said Ross. “If we are regularly setting new records then it shows we are doing a lot of things right.”