Why Hibs finishing third will mean so much more than European football and best-of-the-rest bragging rights
Six games is all that stands between Hibs and the end of the strangest season in football history.
Six games that could result in Hibs recording their best ever points total in the top flight, or at least equalling it. Six games for Hibs to secure European football next season.
Six games for Jack Ross to wrap up a successful first full season in charge of the club.
Provided the Easter Road side doesn't “Hibs it” over the remaining Scottish Premiership matches, the club should finish third for the first time since the 2004/05 season, when Josh Doig was three, Kevin Nisbet a fresh-faced eight-year-old, and a 29-year-old Ross was coming to the end of a season-long stint with Hartlepool United.
Tony Mowbray was the last manager to take Hibs to third, joining an elite band of bosses alongside Alex Miller, Alex McLeish, and Eddie Turnbull to lead the Capital club to a top-three finish since 1975.
But besides a European adventure, and the honour of being the ‘best of the rest’, what will a rare third-place finish mean for Hibs?
The club as a whole
Leaving aside the coronavirus pandemic, and all the associated difficulties, finishing third would be a fine achievement. A couple of League Cup wins, three second-tier titles, and of course the Scottish Cup success in 2016 doesn’t disguise a rather poor return in terms of league placings.
But it is about so much more than improving the record books.
Finishing ‘best of the rest’ in the Scottish Premiership will mean Hibs are in line for a sizeable chunk of the SPFL prizemoney come the end of the season and at a time when clubs will be devising their season ticket promotional campaigns for the 2021/22 season, being able to point to European football will be an invaluable boost when trying to convince supporters to dig deep and back the team to build on this season’s performance next term.
The Scotland – and other international – hopefuls
Much of the recent Scotland talk has focused on Kevin Nisbet, who looks to have picked a good time to rediscover his form in front of goal, but a third-place finish could also push other Hibs players into Steve Clarke’s thoughts for the upcoming 2022 World Cup qualifiers and the Euros.
Paul Hanlon, Ryan Porteous, and Paul McGinn have all been in and around the squad in the last 12 months, but Chris Cadden may feel he stands an outside chance of involvement given Clarke’s preference for using wingbacks and dearth of obvious candidates for the role.
Although the chances of Aberdeen clawing back third place look mathematically and historically unlikely, with the club pushing to secure third and needing 12 more points to equal their best-ever points total, there is still plenty to play for – and the carrot of the Euros squad or participation in the World Cup qualifiers could bring out the best in the players.
It could also convince the likes of Jackson Irvine or Matt Macey to stay longer.
The Hibs owner placed his trust in Jack Ross and the backroom staff when he backed the club financially to compete on the park.
The money spent on Kevin Nisbet alone looks like a shrewd bit of business and Gordon has helped successfully steer the club through the uncertainty of the pandemic off the pitch as well as on it.
There had been doubts over his arrival from some areas of the fanbase; his motives questioned by suspicious supporters long enough in the tooth to remember days when the club wasn’t so comfortable financially.
So far, the bulk of Gordon’s plan appears to be on track, even despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, and the club is on the verge of vindicating his business decisions last summer.
In his 62 games in charge to date, Jack Ross has won 32, drawn 12, and lost 18 giving him a current win rate of 51.61 per cent, putting him behind just Jock Stein, Dan McMichael, Alan Stubbs, and Willie McFarlane at the time of writing.
Ross has a chance to improve that before the end of the season, with the Scottish Cup still to be played along with the six league games. Calls for him to be sacked in January following the Betfred Cup semi-final defeat by St Johnstone seemed knee-jerk at best – long-term projects need time.
The football may not be the most attractive that Easter Road fans have seen in recent seasons but it is working. There is a feeling that the club is moving in the right direction. Continuity and stability have been key through the pandemic, and they are crucial to teams building for success.
Ross securing third place and European football in his first full season in charge would go a long way to getting some of the doubters onside.
A full 12 months has passed since fans were last in stadiums. Some supporters I’ve spoken to have expressed an ambivalence towards the game; weekly TV streams unable to make up for the real thing and everything associated with the match – pre-match pints with pals, a pie at half-time, the dash up the road to get the bus or the train with a few cans for the journey home.
Cardboard kangaroos and the Murray brothers swaying in the Leith breeze just don’t cut it in the last 20 minutes when a swell of crowd noise can carry the team onto victory.
When fans are allowed back into grounds, the psychological lift for the players will be huge regardless of division but with the returning Hibs faithful looking forward to European football and the chance to build on a successful 2020/21 season, the lure will be even greater.
It has been a tough, harrowing year for everyone. In the grand scheme of things, football matters little against a backdrop of coronavirus deaths and long-lasting restrictions.
But Hibs are on the verge of making it a memorable season, for all the right reasons.