Hibs warned over player turnover challenges and raised fan expectations by former Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes
The last time Hibs finished third in the top flight, the high was quickly replaced by some difficult lows as a fairly consistent tumble back down the rankings and, eventually, the leagues followed.
The time before that they went from third to 10th in the space of a year. The time before that, it was a more steady decline but, within three seasons, they had tumbled into the second tier.
The point is, Hibs face a huge test over the summer and throughout next term if they want to buck recent trends and consolidate or even better their position among the best clubs in the country.
Aberdeen were one of the few to manage that over the course of the past decade. Others tried and failed.
Since 2010/11, Hearts have placed third, so too have Motherwell, St Johnstone, Dundee United, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Kilmarnock and Rangers. But only Rangers, the Fir Park side, and Aberdeen were able to push on and follow up one impressive season with something that matched it or surpassed it.
“To have finished third, it shows the competitiveness of the team,” explains former Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes who is content biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity to return to management.
“We finished second four times, two of them when Rangers were not in the league. But there seems to be a lot of good going on at Hibs, which is suggested by the fact they are getting to semi-finals and finals and finishing third.
“The prize money for finishing third will help them but the difficulty, and it is the same with any good team, is that there are always players within a squad who are more relevant to the success and the difficulty for Hibs now is trying to hang onto them for as long as possible. If they can do that then they will have the opportunity to go and build something.
“But you tend to find that maybe one or two move on and it is then a case of trying to replace like for like. That is the challenge for any manager, how you cope with replacing them. The likelihood is that it will be difficult to bridge that gap.”
McInnes left his position at Pittodrie earlier this season, with his men trailing Hibs in the chase for third. But he remains one of the most successful and consistent Premiership managers in recent years.
Like Jack Ross, he took over a big club struggling at the wrong end of the league table and quickly revived fortunes to elevate it to third.
He followed that up with those four second place finishes and two fourth spots, delivering European football throughout his tenure.
But, he admits there were times when that proved a major challenge.
“After the 2017 cup final, when we lost to Celtic, I lost five of my starting team that year - Peter Pawlett, Ash Taylor, Niall McGinn, Jonny Hayes and Ryan Jack all moved on.”
He then lost Kenny McLean to Norwich in January. But still finished second.
“You can maybe carry one or two of them moving on but when you have five it is that bit more difficult. That was probably the biggest challenge and because Europe was coming quickly - back then we were only managing a three-week break before we were back into it - there was a lot of pressure.
“This year there is a bit more room to get things done but there is still pressure on clubs and managers to get those ready-made replacements into the building quickly.
“You tend to lose a couple of your better players every year and when you are doing well you probably expect that but I don’t care who you are, if you lose five of your main players then it does give you a headache and you have to move quickly to address that.”
With several key men being linked with possible departures from Easter Road, Hibs manager Jack Ross, owner Ron Gordon and the football department face some tough decisions on who to sell and whether to gamble by preempting any deals and enlisting possibly-budget-stretching replacements now or waiting to pounce if any transfer goes through.
“You always try to work a window or two ahead of yourself but Hibs are facing the unknown. You are either brave enough to go and get the ready-made replacements before any players leave the building and in an ideal world that would be the case,” adds McInnes. Finances remain a massive factor in clubs’ ability to do that but, he says, there can also be a cost to delaying.
“When you do move players for money it can sometimes be more difficult to get someone else in because the clubs you are trying to deal with think you have plenty of money.”
There can be a bounce from finishing third but, with the Hibs manager and players now set to be judged by their own high standards rather than those set by predecessors, McInnes acknowledges there are also heightened expectations.
“People do look at it differently and expect more and that is just human nature, at any club or any job. You have to expect that.
“The financial differences between Rangers and Celtic and everyone else makes it even more of a challenge [to go even higher] and although you would never give it up at the start of a season, realistically, the best opportunity for clubs outwith Rangers and Celtic is through the cups, as St Johnstone have shown.
“You can try to stay competitive in the league for as long as you can but, in my opinion, for any team that isn’t Rangers or Celtic should, third place should still be classed as a successful season.
“If you had offered Hibs supporters third place at the start of the season and qualifying for Europe, I’m sure they would have taken that all day long.”