Paul Hanlon admits the over-riding emotion as the curtain came down on Hibs’ season was one of bitter disappointment as he and his team-mates realised just how close they’d come to claiming second place in the Premiership table.
It would have been a remarkable achievement for a club back in the top flight of Scottish football after a three-year absence and one which Neil Lennon’s players came so, so close to taking.
But, insisted the Easter Road defender, that initial sense of failure having ended up fourth, will, over the coming weeks, give way to a realisation that they had, in fact, enjoyed a pretty good season.
The Capital club wrapped up their campaign with a memorable 5-5 draw against Rangers, a result which, at least, gave them the consolation of having amassed the greatest points total of any Hibs side.
Expectations of finishing runners-up to Celtic were heightened by a 2-1 win over the champions in the first post-split match and moved higher again as that victory was followed by a win over Kilmarnock and then a draw away to Aberdeen.
However, defeat at Tynecastle in the final Edinburgh derby saw the storm clouds gather, Lennon briefly questioning his own future as attention turned on those players who’d be leaving.
It was a knee-jerk reaction but Hanlon, now in his testimonial year, was adamant this summer will be little different to any other – at Easter Road and countless other grounds.
“It was a bit crazy,” he said. “At the end of the day you never want to lose a derby, so we were all hurt by that and then, obviously the manage thinking about his position cast a bit of doubt over the future.
“Had we lost that first game to Celtic we’d have had Killie right behind us and would have been happy with fourth. But we beat Celtic, kept our run going.
“We gave ourselves a great chance and at the moment we’re thinking what a great chance we had, there was no doubt about it.
“We had every chance, it’s disappointing now, but in a few weeks time we’ll say it’s been a good season.”
Hanlon expects to see a few new faces about when Lennon’s squad return for pre-season training in mid-June, but said: “It’s a fact of life in football. How many times have Hibs been through this situation having star players who’ve been sold on for big money or have left at the end of their contracts.
“But it isn’t just at Hibs, it happens to every club. It won’t be the first time the board have had to deal with this situation.”
Adamant next season’s aim has to be to better than fourth place, Hanlon acknowledged rivals will also be looking to strengthen over the coming weeks, saying: “Teams will be spending money, Rangers spent a lot this year.
“We just have to concentrate on ourselves. I’m sure the board will push it as far as they can. However, you can talk about spending money all you want, but it has to be quality.
“We didn’t spend a lot to get John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch, Fraser Fyvie, boys like that, so it’s about spending money but spending it wisely and getting the right people in.
“We’ve shown this year we can more than match all the teams in this league. On our day we’ve been great to watch and it’s been a joy to be playing.
“I think we can look back and say we have played some entertaining football, we’ve ground out some really important results as well and shown a bit of everything and it’s great to be part of the team that’s won the highest points total.”
While the summer will be filled with renewed speculation over the future of McGinn as the Scotland midfielder moves into the final year of his contract, Lennon has confirmed McGeouch is definitely leaving but, revealed Hanlon, he will do so with the best wishes from those he is leaving behind.
He said: “Dylan was a bit emotional after Sunday’s game. He went out onto the pitch by himself before the lap of honour and came back in a bit emotional. That shows how close we are, that there is that connection between us and the fans that boys are bitterly disappointed to leave.
“But if Dylan has good offers and the chance to progress his career then you can’t deny him that. What he has given the club has been magnificent, he’s a great player, a joy to play with.
“He’s had his tough times, had to battle through injures but he has shown how strong he is as a character to come through that, the season he has had has been incredible.”
Regardless of who comes and goes, Hanlon is convinced Hibs will continue to build on the renewed sense of optimism which has enveloped Easter Road as evidenced by average home gates in excess of 18,000.
He said: “Go back a few years to relegation when we were maybe scrambling to get 10,000 through the door. Everything was on a downer, but the way that has changed has been incredible. The feelgood factor has kept building as has the momentum and we are looking forward to the new season and keeping it going.”