A year ago, Hibs, unable to buy a win under Terry Butcher, were engulfed by darkness.
When mutiny was in the air in the immediate aftermath of relegation, the prospect of sunshine on Leith anytime soon was hard to envisage. Discontent seemed destined to linger.
Yet, less than ten months on from the acrimony of late May and early June last year, the Easter Road club, in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup and on course for second place in an exceptionally strong Scottish Championship, have found their mojo.
Jackie McNamara senior, who remains a regular at Easter Road, was one of several scunnered former Hibs players fronting protests against chairman Rod Petrie and the rest of the board in the aftermath of their play-off final capitulation against Hamilton Accies. However, the 62-year-old has been won over by the resurgence overseen by chief executive Leeann Dempster and head coach Alan Stubbs. “It’s just night and day between this time last year and now, like you wouldn’t believe,” McNamara told the Evening News. “There was a big cloud over the place last year. It’s hard to believe it’s the same club.”
In McNamara’s eyes, the appointment of Stubbs, a former Celtic team-mate of his son Jackie, in June was crucial to starting the fightback. “I saw Alan many times as a player and I really admired him,” he said. “He wasn’t a lump-it-up-the-park centre-half. He played the game the right way and he’s just imparted that to the Hibs players. I was impressed from the very first time I saw the team under Alan, in the friendly against Dundee United. It’s just continued since then.
“The best game I’ve seen this season was the League Cup tie against Dundee United. Both sets of supporters stood at the end and clapped the players off because it was a smashing game of football. And then we had another standout game against Rangers - that was terrific.
“Alan’s brought some life back to the club, without a doubt. The fans are coming back onside. There will always be a bit of scepticism because of all the highs and lows and hiring and firing we’ve been through recently but hopefully we can get a wee bit of stability now because that’s what we need.”
On the eve of the “Petrie Out” rally last summer, McNamara spoke to the Evening News to lament the stale football and absence of quality players at Easter Road. With hindsight, he feels relegation has proven to be a blessing for Hibs as it forced them to address the long-held gripes of he and his fellow supporters. The implementation of an eye-catching style of football and the recruitment of talented footballers of the calibre of Scott Allan, Fraser Fyvie and Dylan McGeouch is testament to the positive strides that have been taken this season.
“Every one of those boys is talented,” said McNamara. “It’s tremendous watching them when they get the ball. When Dylan McGeouch starts running at players, the opposition don’t like it. Scott Allan and Fraser Fyvie lost their way a bit in England but they’re both now showing the ability that got them their moves in the first place. Even Keith Watson in defence, I’d seen a good bit of him at United and he’s a good acquisition.
“Those fans who were protesting last summer, this is the type of football and calibre of players they’ve been crying out for. You can put up with your team losing games, but not when they’re lumping the ball up the pitch. It’s so frustrating to watch. Hamilton Accies passed us off the park in the second leg of that play-off final – that shouldn’t happen. We just didn’t have an answer to it and that’s what upset the supporters.
“Having said all that, I don’t think it was such a bad thing because we’ve changed since then. It could have been worse if we’d stayed up. It looks like we’ve started afresh this season. We’ve come a long way since last summer. They’ve not done anything yet, but it looks like they’re on the right track.”
McNamara believes that the players who have remained from last season’s debacle also merit praise for having the mental strength to bounce back and prove their doubters wrong. “Full credit to those players because I know what it feels like to be relegated with Hibs,” he said. The likes of Lewis [Stevenson] and [Paul] Hanlon were involved in it, as were some of the young boys. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling for the players as well as the supporters, but thankfully they’re managing to turn it round now.
“Stevenson is a 7/10 every week for me and now he’s scoring goals as well. Then you’ve got Scott Robertson who has kicked on and is doing a really good job in the middle of the park.”
Although surprised at how quickly Hibs have got back on their feet since last season’s turmoil, McNamara insists he could detect from very early in the current season that things may be about to take a turn for the better. “I remember early in the season having discussions with Rangers supporters in my pub and they had the league title sewn up in their eyes. But I said at the time that Hearts had all these young boys with experience from playing in the Premiership and Hibs already looked like a better football team than Rangers. Even back at the start of the season, I said I felt Hearts or Hibs would win the league before Rangers and I’ve been proved right. Hearts and Hibs have done it the right way in terms of starting from scratch and rebuilding.”
Hibs attracted a crowd of 15,621 when they beat Rangers 4-0 at Easter Road three months ago. With Stubbs’ side having won their last seven matches in all competitions and pulled ahead of the Ibrox outfit in the battle for second place, McNamara is hopeful that an even bigger crowd will turn out for this Sunday’s match between the teams.
“The supporters are looking forward to going the games again,” he said. “Hopefully we can get even more coming through the gates. It would be great to get the stadium full - that would be my ambition if I was at the club. We should certainly get a good crowd for the Rangers game. It would be nice for the players and managers to run out in front of a full house and see how much their efforts have been appreciated.”