The current Hibs squad go into the business end of this season with the chance to establish themselves as one of their club’s most accomplished of the modern era.
While several members of Neil Lennon’s team already hold legendary status after playing their part in the 2016 Scottish Cup triumph, a chance beckons to ensure the second half of the present decade goes down as a genuinely fruitful period in the club’s history.
With five games to play, Hibs are just three points behind Aberdeen and Rangers in their quest to finish second in the Premiership. While the Dons and the Ibrox side have enjoyed plenty top-two finishes in recent years and decades, Hibs are aiming to scale heights not reached since the 1974/75 season when they finished as runners-up to Rangers a year after finishing second behind Celtic.
Pat Stanton was part of the team that achieved the feat in back-to-back campaigns under the legendary Eddie Turnbull in the 70s.
“I remember finishing second but it was a long time ago!” he laughed. “Forty three years without finishing second is too long for a club of Hibs’ size, but I suppose we also had to wait a while to win the Scottish Cup, didn’t we?” Even if Hibs are unable to climb up the table in the remaining five games, just holding on to fourth place – the position they currently occupy – would be enough to set the current team apart from the majority of their predecessors in green and white. Hibs have finished in the top four of Scotland’s top flight in only 13 of the previous 50 campaigns. Eight of those instances came between 1968 and 1978, meaning – prior to this term – they had been in the top four just five times in 40 years. Hibs last achieved a top-four finish when they secured fourth under John Hughes in the 2009/10 season. Every season since then and prior to the current one was spent either in the bottom six of the top flight or in the Championship.
Only now, after a steady and impressive rebuild since relegation in 2014, are Hibs beginning to reassert themselves at the top end of Scottish football. With a manager of substance in Lennon and a squad of quality players able to cope with the high expectations of playing for one of the country’s big city clubs, Hibs are arguably in the midst of their best period since Turnbull’s Tornadoes wreaked havoc in the 70s. In terms of the vibe around the club, only the Alex McLeish (1998-2001) and Tony Mowbray (2004-06) years come close, but this time – with Leeann Dempster leading so impressively as chief executive and crowds flocking to Easter Road since the Scottish Cup hoodoo was banished – there is a feeling that Hibs are better equipped to sustain their fruitful period beyond a couple of years or any potential managerial change.
“There’s been really good changes at the club, with Leeann Dempster coming in and then Neil Lennon arriving as manager,” said Stanton. “They’ve brought in some good players and turned Hibs into one of the strongest teams in the country once again. They’re playing with real confidence as well. The team is performing well on the park and the fans have responded terrifically. The people are pleased with what they’re seeing on the pitch.
“This team have the chance to be remembered as one of the really good Hibs sides of the modern era. For a spell there, Hibs were just drifting along and then they eventually got relegated. Things were flat. Had they not come back up when they did, things could have got pretty difficult for the club. But the people in charge of the club have really got the fans on board and they’ve brought some good players in. Some other clubs have brought players in and it’s not really worked out for them. It can be difficult to get good players in but Hibs have managed it. The supporters should be really pleased with how things have gone and we need to enjoy this period because, as we know, it won’t last forever.”
Hibs go into the post-split fixtures as the form team of the three in the battle for second place after recording a nine-game unbeaten run since losing to Celtic in January. Aberdeen and Rangers, by contrast, are reeling after their respective Scottish Cup semi-final thrashings, while Lennon’s team have defeated both of those sides in recent months. “I don’t see why Hibs can’t catch Rangers and Aberdeen and get second place,” said Stanton. “When you look at the results in the past few months, Hibs have got a bit of momentum going. They just need to keep it going, but there’s no reason why they can’t. They’ve proved they’re capable of getting results against any team in the league, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they got second place.”
While a fourth-place finish would be viewed in a positive light at Hibs since this is their first season back in the top flight after three years in the Championship, Stanton, one of the club’s most iconic former players, believes they should aim high. “You’ve got to be realistic about where you set your sights but, at the same time, you also have to set them beyond the level you’d be happy with if you want to be successful,” said the 73-year-old. “If you’re quite happy just to reach a certain level all the time, that’s when you level out. But if you’ve got ambitions to go further than that and surprise a lot of people and get yourself up there beyond what people’s expectations are, then you’ve got to aim high. There’s not a barrier on it – if you want to do it, you can do it.”