At 71, Pat Stanton still gets the same buzz walking into Easter Road as he did when first reported for training as a 13-year-old.
But there have, he admitted, been times in recent years when he’s approached the stadium with a heavy heart, like other fans concerned that the club was simply drifting aimlessly, a fear realised in the cruellest of fashions as the Capital outfit suffered the humiliation of being relegated.
Two years ago the future didn’t look at all bright but now, even although Hibs still languish in the Championship, Stanton believes that finally the club he served as both player and manager is beginning to look to a brighter future.
Capturing the Scottish Cup after a 114-year wait did, of course, lift a huge weight off everyone connected with Hibs, but Stanton sees a real determination to build on that success and to fully reconnect with the supporters while emphasising the importance of winning promotion at the third time of asking.
Beginning the season with back-to-back league wins for the first time in nine years has, he agreed, been a promising start under new boss Neil Lennon, but he stressed how vital it was that Hibs build on that platform, expressing his surprise that if they were to make it three victories on the trot when they visit St Mirren on Saturday it would be the first time they’d won their first three league games since 1974.
Stanton was part of the side which marked the final year of the old Division One with five wins on the spin, the Easter Road side ending the season in second place behind Rangers with Celtic trailing in third.
He said: “It surprises me that it is more than 40 years since Hibs last won their first three league games. But having won their first two, it’s important they build on that. Most people would see Falkirk and Dundee United as their main rivals and although it’s only two games in, they are already five points clear of both of them.
“In past years they’ve been having to make up a deficit from the very word go, so it’s looking good so far, but I can’t emphasise how crucial it if for Hibs to get promoted this season.”
The renewed sense of optimism which Stanton has detected was highlighted by a bumper crowd of 16,477 for Lennon’s first home league game against Dunfermline, the biggest crowd in Scotland on the day but, he insisted, it’s vital that everything is done to ensure the feelgood factor not only continues but increases.
He said: “It’s no secret the club were drifting along. For many years there did not seem to be any direction. A lot of the supporters felt that way. But that seems to have changed with those involved at boardroom level and in the background.
“It was good to see the crowd inside the ground on Saturday. I was delighted to see the supporters come out in such numbers. It was Jock Stein who said that football without fans is nothing and that’s true at any club.”
While former boss Alan Stubbs turned fortunes around on the pitch, arriving to find he had barely enough players for a five-a-side team only to depart two years later having guided them to glory at Hampden, Stanton believes Leeann Demspter coming in as chief executive has played a huge role off the park in reuniting the club with its supporters.
He said: “A lot of people could not believe Hibs had gone down. We saw how Hearts turned things round, reaching out to their fans saying ‘come and help us, get behind us’. That was great to see – it doesn’t do me any good to see Hearts doing badly. It looks as if HIbs have taken that on board, they’ve worked hard on the other side, letting fans know they are a part of the thing.
“I think Hibs have built up a head of steam here and they have really capitalised on winning the Scottish Cup. The people in charge, especially Leeann Dempster, are not going to let it go. It’s no coincidence that Leeann has reached out to the supporters and re-engaged them with their club. She has listened to what they are saying.
“There is a lot of goodwill towards Hibs now, whereas in the past it was draining away. But now it is looking a bit better.
If the Scottish Cup triumph has proved to be the catalyst, Stanton also believes appointing Lennon to replace Stubbs and knocking back a £1.7 million offer from Peterborough United for top scorer Jason Cummings has also helped stir the Hibs support.
“When all the names were getting put forward for the manager’s job and I saw Neil Lennon’s come up, I thought that was an outside bet when you see the clubs he has been associated with,” he admitted. “So I was a bit surprised but delighted that Hibs got him. It was a wee bit of a coup for the club.
“Neil is a very determined man. He has great experience in the game and he will expect his players to think about the game the same way as he does. If you don’t fall into that category, then you won’t have much of a career at Easter Road.”
And Stanton insisted persuading Cummings, the youngest Hibs player since Peter Cormack to score 50 goals for the club, and then rejecting Peterborough’s offer for the 21-year-old had only helped tighten the bond between club and supporters.
He said: “Peter Cormack was some player and it is something to live up to if Jason is to be as good as him. I’m delighed for Jason and the progress he has made. He is still very young – people tend to forget that.
“There is obvious interest in him because he has scored a lot of goals. But the fans can see Hibs have pulled out all the stops to keep him and they will get behind the club because of that. Hibs refused to sell him to the first club that offered serious money so it is not an accident that you see the response from the supporters.”
Although there have been “a few false dawns” since, Stanton revealed he feels the current mood is reminiscent of the “golden generation” of youngsters that come through the ranks under Tony Mowbray.
He said: “The Hibs supporters are excited again by what they are seeing. I still feel the same as I did when I first came to Easter Road as a 13-year-old to train on Tuesday and Thursday night. I still feel the same about the place, I still enjoy going there.”
• Pat Stanton was speaking as an ambassador for Business Fives, Scotland first national business five-a-side football tournament which is raising funds for charity partner, the Trussell Trust. Companies like Sky, BT, Standard Life, Santander and ESPC have all competed in sector heats for their chance to qualify for the national final taking place at Lesser Hampden on September 1.