In addition to an understandable buzz of excitement, a sense of the unknown accompanies Hibs as they kick off their competitive campaign away to Stirling Albion in the Betfred Cup tomorrow.
They enter the season under new ownership and with a quintet of summer signings from England who have no previous experience of Scottish football. Three regulars from the second half of last term have gone, for now at least, in the shape of Mark Milligan, Marc McNulty and Stephane Omeonga, while the booming southern voice of Marvin Bartley no longer reverberates around the Hibs dressing-room. Paul Heckingbottom may have been in charge for five months, but there is a feeling that this is something of a fresh start for the head coach as he embarks on his first full season at Easter Road buoyed by the addition of a handful of his own new recruits.
Having arrived in February to replace Neil Lennon, the man in charge at the onset of the three previous seasons, Heckingbottom swiftly won over supporters with an excellent salvage job as he hauled a previously struggling Hibs squad from eighth place to fifth on the back of a ten-game unbeaten run in the league. After the impressive early bounce under the Yorkshireman, things started to fizzle out in the closing weeks of the season, with only two points and two goals from the five post-split fixtures. While this dip in form was perhaps understandable given Hibs were pitted against the top teams in the country with a squad which was ultimately short of the required potency and creative spark to overhaul Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, the challenge for Heckingbottom now is to ensure his team are ready to challenge once more for a top-four berth following last year’s mish-mash of a campaign.
In terms of vibe, Hibs are certainly in a better place this summer than they were a year ago when they were trying to adapt to losing Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan while also dreading the impending departure of a third influential midfielder, John McGinn. In addition, there was an unsettling notion lingering that Lennon wasn’t wholly content at Easter Road following the former manager’s remarkable post-match outburst at Tynecastle towards the end of the previous season, in which he expressed concern about the club’s ability to keep moving forward. In that regard, an encouraging Europa League qualifying campaign last summer, in which Greek side Asteras Tripolis were despatched, proved to be a false dawn before things started to unravel for the Northern Irishman.
By contrast, there is a sense of relative serenity around the club at present. Excitement at what Heckingbottom may be able to accomplish now that he has had a proper chance to get his feet under the table has been added to over the past fortnight by the hype generated from the takeover of American businessman Ron Gordon. Further hope is drawn from the return of proven big-hitters Allan and Martin Boyle from Celtic and long-term injury respectively. While new signings Christian Doidge and Joe Newell are unknown quantities in a Scottish context, a look at their career history would suggest that, along with Allan and Boyle, they can help make Hibs a notably more dangerous attacking side than they were in the closing months of last season when the creativity had faded and McNulty’s goals had dried up.
A defence which was already in pretty good order is augmented by the arrivals of Adam Jackson and Tom James, as well as the impending return from injury of the burgeoning Ryan Porteous. Even allowing for the uncertainty at this stage about what level of impact the new recruits will be capable of having, there appears to be genuine reason for confidence among supporters.
Of course, the knee-jerk nature of modern-day football dictates that all of this pre-season optimism will diminish significantly if Hibs don’t return from Stirling with a victory tomorrow.
In bidding to start the campaign with a flourish, bed in their new signings with relative harmony, and regenerate some of the momentum they had in the first couple of months of Heckingbottom’s reign, Hibs could hardly have asked for a more favourable start. They are the only Premiership side to have been placed in a Betfred Cup section containing four part-time teams – Alloa Athletic, Arbroath, Elgin City and Stirling. Alloa, the highest-ranked of this quartet last season, finished eighth in the Championship and are currently in a state of transition after having their highly-regarded manager, Jim Goodwin, headhunted by St Mirren.
On paper at least, Hibs, with the summer wind seemingly in their sails, should be aiming to achieve something no top-flight side bar Motherwell in 2017 has managed in the previous two years of the Betfred Cup group stage – win all four of their matches and go into the league campaign in the best fettle possible.