Alan Stubbs believes the players who suffered as Hibs crashed out of the Premiership are now itching for the chance to return the Easter Road club to the top flight of Scottish football.
Seven of those who were reduced to tears as Hamilton Accies condemned them to the Championship remain with the Capital outfit, and they went through mental hell in the weeks and months that followed, none more so than Liam Craig who, as club captain, bore the brunt of the fans’ anger.
But today, as his squad prepare for the first of what they hope will be four play-off matches at their Spanish base in La Manga where his players went through morning and afternoon training sessions on their first day in the sunshine, Stubbs insisted promotion would be all the sweeter for the midfield player who, faced with the choice of leaving Hibs and returning to his former club St Johnstone, opted to stay and fight on. The head coach said: “I’ve got nothing but admiration for Liam. Yes, it’s always easy for someone to walk away from something that has happened and wipe your feet of it all and move on to something else.
“He wanted to stay, he wanted to do something about it. For Liam it’s been a season that he wanted to be in the team more often than not. But his attitude has been impeccable and that speaks volume for him as a person. Whenever his chance comes, he has always been ready and has always been the one who has been around the players when he’s left out. He’s positive and wants the best for the football club and that’s easier said than done at times.”
However, Stubbs admitted it took weeks of one-to-ones and group sessions to help Craig, Scott Robertson, Paul Hanlon, Lewis Stevenson, Jason Cummings, Jordon Forster and Danny Handling come to terms with the trauma of that shock relegation.
But, he insisted, each and every one of them will use that humiliating experience and, along with the new faces he’s brought in over the course of the season, he’s confident they have what it takes both in terms of talent and mindset to see themselves emerge from the final push or the top with smiles on their faces once again. He said: “It’s okay knowing what happened but you have to be able to learn from your experiences. It’s obviously in the past but you have to be able to respond and I think this season as a team we are definitely responding to situations which has been really pleasing.
“I think from the outside looking in a lot of people can label the accusations that it doesn’t really affect players, that they are not really bothered but at the end of the day I have never come across a player that’s not been bothered by something so negative.
“Players get over it in different ways, some are very strong mentally, some can be a little bit more fragile. We are all individuals so you have to respect maybe that one might take longer to get over it than others but I think from when I came in to now they are a completely different group not just a football group but an entirely different mentality.
“What’s gone on in the past can sometimes linger in the present.
“We spoke about it as a group, as individuals because some players like to talk about things more, some don’t and you have to respect that. I would have fronted it in front of the group but I think that all 18 players won’t be the same so you have to take everybody as an individual case, the more you can speak as a group the better but you have to be able to respect the ones that are a bit more fragile.
“You have to take everybody as an individual case, the more you can do it as a group even better. You have to respect the ones that probably open up more on a one-to-one.
“I think you have to look at the way they have responded to results which proves that. It’s not just me saying that, I think now you have evidence to back it up. The players started the season slowly, hit good form and then they hit what was not necessarily a wobble they were actually playing okay it was just we were on the wrong end of a couple of results and then they responded again.”
Now, though, Hibs’ mettle will be tested not over 90 minutes but 180 in their play-off semi-final against Rangers or Queen of the South and then again, hopefully, between themselves and the club which finishes second bottom of the Premiership, at the moment looking most likely to be Motherwell although Ross County and Kilmarnock are not yet out of the equation.
And, Stubbs admitted, that will mean another change of mindset.
He said: “It’s definitely something we’ve talked about because when you are in control of a game or chasing it you have to change the mindset. That’s not to say if we are winning 1-0 we’ll want to sit back looking to win 1-0. I’d want them to try and score more but you have to be a little bit more mindful of the fact that it’s a minimum of 180 minutes you are playing per round, possibly 210 [if the tie goes to extra time], but hopefully 180.”