Hibs’ last trip to New Douglas Park and their impending return to the Lanarkshire ground, now known as the SuperSeal Stadium, this Saturday can be viewed as metaphorical book ends to one of the most eventful three-and-a-half-year periods in the club’s history.
No supporter could have predicted the dramatic path their team was about to take after Jason “the bean-tin opener” Cummings fired them to a 2-0 victory over Hamilton Accies in the first leg of the Scottish Premiership play-off final on the evening of Wednesday, 21 May 2014.
It would be stretching a point to extremes to suggest all was well with Hibs’ world at that point since Terry Butcher’s dysfunctional team had only just been spared automatic relegation to the Championship by the fact city rivals Hearts were unable to overcome the deduction of 15 points for entering administration and duly finished bottom of the table.
However, having plummeted from mid-table in mid-season to second bottom on the last day of the regulation campaign, Hibs looked like they had capitalised on the safety net of the play-offs after the 18-year-old Cummings, previously without a goal in his six months in the first team, finally broke his duck with a magnificently-executed double to decide the first leg in the visitors’ favour.
The teenage striker scored with a long-range shot shortly before half-time and then added a close-range chip early in the second half to secure a hard-fought victory which looked like denying Hamilton - who started with former Hibs striker Mickael Antoine-Curier and future Hibs striker James Keatings - the chance to cap a strong season in the Championship with promotion. “Hibs had two chances in the game and managed to put the two of them away,” was the rueful post-match assessment of then Accies manager Alex Neil. “We had five or six opportunities and didn’t take any of them. That was the biggest difference.”
Hibs weren’t particularly bothered about the intricacies of a match in which they had seemingly all but secured their survival. Their 2700 travelling supporters were in buoyant mood after roaring their team towards what appeared to be another season in the top flight. “That was one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in since I have been here,” mused veteran defender Michael Nelson afterwards.
The fervour had clearly gripped Butcher, who infamously went on to the pitch at full-time to punch the air jubilantly in front of the Hibs fans in a scene which implied he felt survival was as good as accomplished. “We’re not used to coming in at half-time 1-0 up and we’re not used to scoring two goals and keeping a clean sheet,” he said of a team who had been in freefall in the league prior to this victory. “The boys are in the dressing room and don’t know what to do, but it’s a lovely feeling and I’m not being blase about it. This is a situation that we wanted to be in.”
There was no sense of the trauma about to engulf them as Hibs basked in the relative success of taking a major step towards retaining their top-flight status. Indeed, with the prospect of the Easter Road side following Hearts into the second tier seemingly having been quashed, much of the post-match narrative surrounded Cummings and the first zany interview of his career. “It was some zing from myself - I opened a tin of beans there,” the elated striker told Sky Sports as he gave the Scottish football public a first taste of his eccentric personality with his description of his first goal.
“His Sky interview let’s you make your own mind up about his character,” said team-mate Nelson, underlining the relatively lighthearted mood in the Hibs camp after the victory in Lanarkshire. “That’s just Jason. His left foot is so good, he can open a tin of beans with it was what he was trying to say – but I don’t think he knows that’s what it means! He has heard someone else say it another time, so he has thought he will say it.”
While Cummings went on to “zing” another 69 goals for Hibs over the subsequent three years, 55 of them came in the Scottish Championship after a largely unforeseen collapse in the second leg at Easter Road left them in the second tier. “It’s half-way in the tie,” said Neil after his side’s first-leg defeat. “To keep the tie alive, we’ve got to go and start the game really well, get the first goal and then try to put Hibs on the back foot.”
Much to the shock and torment of even the most pessimistic Hibs fan, Neil’s seemingly fanciful hope came to fruition in the second leg. Accies took a 13th minute lead through Jason Scotland to leave Hibs’ players and supporters gripped by fear and then forced extra time when Tony Andreu scored at the death. Accies won the penalty shootout, and Butcher’s victory dance at New Douglas Park just four days earlier suddenly seemed wildly misjudged. Amid a period of post-relegation protest towards chairman Rod Petrie, the manager was sacked by incoming chief executive Leeann Dempster as Hibs set about trying to recover from this catastrophe. As they prepare to return to Hamilton this weekend sitting third in the Premiership with one of the strongest squads in the country, it is safe to say they made a pretty good fist of it.
Although Hibs would spend three consecutive seasons in the Championship, since their last trip to New Douglas Park, they have won the Scottish Cup, seized the upper hand in the Edinburgh derby, reached semi-finals in five of the seven knockout tournaments they have contested, been led by two highly respected and managers in Alan Stubbs and Neil Lennon and, crucially, reconnected with their support.
Any victory on Saturday may lack the immediate sense of relief and elation that greeted their last one at New Douglas Park, but whatever the result against Accies, the travelling Hibs fans can be comforted by the knowledge that their team is now a safe distance from the precipice.