Leeann Dempster believes Hibs are now reaping the rewards for the “very bold” decision to continue funding the Easter Road outfit as a Premiership club throughout its three years in the second flight of Scottish football.
The arrival of chief executive Dempster was heralded only weeks before the Edinburgh side suffered that ignominious relegation, the former head of Motherwell rejecting the opportunity to change her mind. Instead, she focused all her energies on – along with George Craig, who came in as head of football operations – the transformation that was needed to get the club off its knees and back to the top table of Scottish football.
It was a root-and-branch operation, as much attention paid to a restructure of the club’s academy as rebuilding the first team as a credible force, one entrusted to Alan Stubbs and, following his shock decision to leave after that historic Scottish Cup triumph, Neil Lennon, who took his team to within a whisker of finishing second in their first season back in the top flight.
Dempster, who last week rejected a tentative approach from Plymouth for her services, said: “The years in the Championship were very hard years, hard financial years. It was very bold of the board, the executive and everyone involved at the club at that time to continue after relegation to go on the path that had been set with the recruitment of myself and George.
“That meant a transformation of the club and that mean a significant investment, not just in the playing staff, but within every aspect of the club. It had to happen to get us to where we are at the moment.
“Everyone knows in Scottish football it’s a tough environment at the best of times. Being in the Championship makes it all the harder, but we were supported all the way through.”
Fourth place, Dempster admitted, surpassed her own personal expectations – she’d felt “a strong top-six finish” was achievable – but such a remarkable ending, taking the chase for that runners-up spot to the second-last game of the season, was reflective, she insisted, of the quality of the people working at the club, the players and the ambition within Easter Road.
And she is determined such seasons will be a regular occurrence, saying: “There is always a danger expectations become unrealistic, but for us it’s about saying to the supporters, the people who believe in the club – and that is everyone who works here – we have a solid plan.
“It’s not about one or two seasons, it’s about the absolute future of the club. We are not going boom, boom bust; boom, boom, bust. Clubs have done that in the past, that’s not what we plan to do.
“But equally that doesn’t mean we can’t be aspirational, we absolutely have ambition. It’s coming back to this philosophy, the DNA of where we want the club to be and to sustain itself for many, many years.
“I’m not putting a number on our back saying we need to be second, third or fourth next year, but I am really confident in the people who work here, the players we have, and I see no reason why we can’t go on again and have another brilliant season. We’re planning for it, we want to do it.
“You have to be doing well for expectations to rise – it’s a virtuous circle.”
Winning the SPFL Development League and the SFA Youth Cup underlined the work that’s been done within Hibs academy. Youngsters Oli Shaw, Ryan Porteous and, to a lesser extent, Fraser Murray, have staked a claim for place in Neil Lennon’s first-team squad, with the Easter Road boss having already indicated he expects striker Shaw and Scotland Under-21 defender Porteous to play greater roles in the coming season.
Dempster, however, revealed there are between “six and eight” youngsters ready to transition to that level, the likes of goalkeeper Kevin Dabrowski, midfielder Ben Stirling, full-back Sean Mackie and striker Lewis Allan having all found themselves involved in Lennon’s squad.
She said: “That doesn’t mean we are going to have eight in the first team or always stripped and on the bench, but it means that Neil, Garry [Parker] and the staff at HTC are comfortable in them stepping up.
“I think this year will be when you see the young players properly emerge and you will see much more of that, there’s any number of them.
“The success that the young players had within the league environment and the cup starts to establish us in terms of work in the academy strategy. I think we are beginning to see that bear fruit and we are still only at the start of that and that’s really exciting for me.”
While Hibs treat the development league as exactly that, the chance for youngsters to learn their trade regardless of results, Dempster believes the youth cup win possibly brought greater enjoyment given those were games the players had to win.
She said: “The teams we were putting out in the development league were not about winning games, but developing young players and having worked with some of them for three or four years, you could see that cohesion and a real consistency of performance.”
Dempster has no problem admitting it’s a blueprint similar to that once employed by Falkirk, where Craig was managing director and former Hibs player Eddie May, now back as academy coaching manager, was once boss, the Bairns having produced a string of young players such as Jay Fulton, Stephen Kingsley, Connor McGrandles and Scott Arfield.
She said: “I look back at the players who were at Falkirk many years ago and the people who were at Falkirk who are now at our club and I look at the players who were at Falkirk and are having stellar careers in England. A lot of the same disciplines and the learnings I had at Motherwell and George at Falkirk are being applied and we have real anticipation we will be able to replicate that work again.”