More downs than ups on Hibs 2022/23 rollercoaster - but faint signs of progress are there
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This year was meant to be so different. A new manager, a glut of signings, a fair few departures, and the chance to put right the wrongs of last term – and for Hibs to take their place in the upper echelons of the Scottish top flight. Instead the season started with work permit delays, an ignominious League Cup exit at the group stages after a paperwork foul-up, and a serious injury to Aiden McGeady in the final pre-season match. It ended with faint yet earnest hope that Hearts could be beaten to fourth on the final day of the season. In the end, as has so often been the case with Hibs this season, the ultimate goal was within touching distance, but somehow still just out of reach. A catalogue of injuries throughout the season didn’t help.
An injury-time Josh Campbell winner against St Johnstone in the first game of the season raised hopes that Hibs had recovered from their Betfred blip, and when talismanic forward Martin Boyle was re-signed from Saudi Arabian side Al-Faisaly just in time to come off the bench and score an even later injury-time equaliser against Hearts the following week, it looked as though the Hibee rollercoaster was well and truly back on the tracks.
But meek defeats by Livingston and St Mirren in Paisley either side of another Campbell late show to ensure a share of the spoils at home to Rangers, raised further questions about the team’s mentality and ability. Then came a run of four wins. Perhaps Hibs had rediscovered their mojo. But the fifth game of that sequence, away to Dundee United, ended in a 1-0 defeat. Kukharevych had a goal ruled out for contentious reasons, and Aziz Behich’s early strike was the difference. Lee Johnson fumed afterwards, the incident coming a mere ten days before VAR was introduced to Scottish football. After Dundee United came a trip to Celtic, which ended in a comprehensive 6-1 victory for the hosts. Johnson was taught a footballing lesson by Ange Postecoglou but there were signs during the game that the Easter Road boss was trying to emulate his Parkhead counterpart’s style of play, in keeping with his desire to turn Hibs into a side playing free-flowing, attacking football. He just didn’t have the players with which to do it.
The rest of the season followed a similar pattern. Hibs lost Boyle to a season-ending injury just before the World Cup break while Kukharevych was also ruled out for a spell. Jake Doyle-Hayes missed most of the first half of the season and summer signing Lewis Miller also struggled with knocks and injuries, along with Kyle Magennis. Kevin Nisbet made his return after a ten-month injury lay-off of his own in mid-December, scoring as Hibs twice led against Rangers at Ibrox before losing 3-2. Around the same time, Momodou Bojang’s loan was cancelled but the Gambian made a series of claims about his treatment that cast another cloud over East Mains.
McGeady’s return from injury had produced two assists in nine league games but he suffered a season-ending injury of his own in February, reducing Hibs wide attacking options to the bare minimum. A heavy new year derby defeat at Tynecastle prompted an epic post-match rant by Johnson as he predicted ten players could leave in the winter transfer window. It seemed to work, as Hibs embarked on a seven-game unbeaten run including the 6-0 win against Aberdeen that spelled the end for Jim Goodwin, in a match dubbed ‘El Sackio’ after Hibs had had to score late to snatch a point in a 2-2 home draw with Dundee United.
Hibs sneaked into the top six after a first derby win for Johnson, and a stuttering draw against St Johnstone in Perth, which produced another bombastic post-match review from Johnson as he railed against a controversial red card shown to Jimmy Jeggo.
Eight points from 15 is Hibs’ joint-best return in the top six but it could have been more. They dominated the Dons at Pittodrie but Nisbet had a late penalty saved that, had it gone in, might have helped them secure fourth place. Hibs rebounded from a lacklustre defeat by Rangers to beat Celtic in a six-goal thriller at Easter Road.
So many what-ifs. What if Boyle hadn’t been injured? What if Nisbet scored that penalty? What if VAR decisions had gone the other way?
Speaking after the final game, David Marshall refuted the suggestion it would be a successful season with European qualification.
"I think the Hibs fans will be happy that fighting for fourth on the last day is certainly an improvement on where we were,” he offered. “Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen should be fighting for third. I've no idea in terms of budget comparison, but there's nothing to suggest we shouldn't. We lost a lot of points against the bottom three teams. We didn't have consistency in the first part of the season, but there’s optimism when you take a step back and look it. As a squad we haven't had that big moment of success, but hopefully it comes.”
There is a degree of positivity to be taken from this season. An improvement on last season; a turnaround after that dismal run of form before the World Cup break. But there is room for improvement in certain areas. Without managerial upheaval there should be the chance to get players in sooner rather than later and properly prepare for next season and, potentially, Europe. Johnson has repeatedly called Hibs a ‘fixer-upper’; and talked of the long-term project. There are decent foundations in place – the onus now is on Hibs to build on the positives and ensure the rollercoaster has more ups than downs next season.