The weight has finally been lifted. For four years, Hibs have toiled under a dark cloud, that inexplicable collapse which led to relegation, two promotion play-off heartbreaks and, in recent months, a longer and more drawn-out drive to the top than had been desired or hoped for.
But now Neil Lennon’s players are there and contemplating a summer spent dreaming of once again visiting the likes of Celtic Park, Ibrox, Tynecastle and Pittodrie rather, and no disrespect to the respective clubs, Central Park, the Indodrill Stadium, Somerset Park and so on.
The somewhat belated clinching of the title, however, has allowed Lennon and his side to enjoy their final few matches in the Championship, free from the pressure which had borne down on them in each of the previous three seasons.
It will, of course, be short-lived as they move back into the Premiership, a weekly test of their top-flight credentials, rather than the sprinkling of cup ties over the past couple of seasons which produced performances against Aberdeen, Dundee United, St Johnstone, Ross County, Hearts, and Inverness Caley which not only cut through the drudgery of the Championship but suggested they will, in fact, fare pretty well once they are back among the “big boys”.
Even in relinquishing their grip on a Scottish Cup they had fought so hard to get their hands on, Lennon’s players, in coming back from a disastrous start in that semi-final against the Dons, currently second in the top flight, once again signalled they could well hold their own, only to lose to a cruel deflection in the dying minutes at Hampden.
After watching his side stroll to a comfortable win which all but relegated Ayr United – Ian McCall’s players need an unlikely 5-0 victory over Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park in their final match to even lift themselves into the play-off place – Lennon admitted he is already looking ahead to next season.
“That process starts now,” he revealed, “Not too much, but we are looking to next season and we looked a very good team against Ayr.”
Lennon, who had watched from the stand at Somerset Park as he completed his two-match touchline ban, added: “I enjoyed it. I thought we were different class. It was a really polished performance against a team that are fighting for their lives.
“The professionalism was fantastic. It was really comfortable at the end of the day. We scored some good goals so I am really pleased. Some of our football was terrific. There were some excellent individual performances, Fraser Fyvie was superb as was Grant Holt.
“Jason Cummings was among the goals again so that should keep him happy for another week.”
Having given a clutch of youngsters a run-out against Raith in midweek, Hibs were along more familiar lines for the trip to Ayrshire to face a side which had caused them a few problems this season, inflicting the season’s only home defeat on the Capital club and escaping with a point from their other visit to Easter Road.
Lennon, though, detected a lack of intensity among the Honest Men, their predicament inducing a nervousness which was all too evident as early as the third minute when Darryll Meggat’s misjudged header put his goalkeeper Greg Fleming in trouble. But Cummings, after sidestepping him, could only hit the outside of the post from a tight angle.
With Martin Boyle and Chris Humphrey hugging their respective touchlines to stretch Ayr’s back four, it appeared only a matter of time before Hibs would score the opening goal and it came as John McGinn seized on yet another poor clearance to drive into the penalty area and direct a cross onto the head of Cummings.
Three minutes later, the lead was doubled, Fyvie picking out Holt in such space the Ayr defenders were left screaming for an offside flag which never came, the striker flashing a low ball across the face of goal and Cummings unselfishly leaving it for Boyle to fire high into the net at the back post.
McCall undoubtedly had some harsh words for his players during the interval, his team making a better fist of it in the second half but, comfortable with that two-goal cushion, Hibs were content to soak up what pressure came their way while hitting on the break. And substitute James Keatings claimed his third goal in four days before Cummings made it 23 for the season.
An acrobatic leap from goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw to touch away a Meggat thunderbolt and a foot thrust out to deny the veteran Gary Harkins also ensured a 19th clean sheet for the tightest defence in the country.
It was, however, all probably much easier than Lennon would have anticipated against the part-timers although Hibs had enjoyed a 3-0 victory on their last visit to Somerset Park. And he admitted to having a degree of sympathy for McCall, not only his rival manager but a friend.
The Hibs boss said: “Ian has done a great job, even getting them up in the first place was excellent.
“They have fought their corner really well but they had it all to do. They’ve always been swimming against the tide coming into this division.
“But, on the day, I thought they lacked that bit of intensity. I do not want to be critical, but they didn’t have the edge they had when we played them before. It was a comfortable game for us. We played well here last time but we had to play well.
“It was one of our best performances away from home that day back in November but this time there was something missing from them.”
However, in saying that, while admitting his side had “got a little sloppy” for a short period in the second 45 minutes as they hit cruise control, Lennon was more than pleased with his players’ attitude, adamant they are determined to end their season with one final victory against St Mirren on Saturday before they finally lay their hands on the Championship trophy.