No matter what happens, it's been a season to remember for Hibs
No matter what might happen over the course of the next three matches, it has, according to former Hibs striker Keith Wright, been a season to remember at Easter Road.
Granted, there won’t be any silverware this month unlike the previous two years, but Neil Lennon’s players have exceeded all expectations and, as they enter the final straight, they still have the chance of clinching what would be a remarkable second-place finish in the Ladbrokes Premiership table.
But, almost as importantly, says Wright, the fans have loved what they have seen, Hibs enjoying their biggest average home gates since the late 1950s, season-ticket sales at a record high and, with more than 10,000 already sold four months before the new campaign gets underway, likely to go higher still.
Expectations have soared as the season has gone on, Wright admitting he’d have happily settled for a respectable top-six finish for a club returning to the top flight following a three-year absence.
Now, though, Lennon’s side stand only two points away from recording their highest-ever total in the modern era, have won seven consecutive home games in the same season for the first time in 44 years and have already surpassed their previous best points tally in the top six with their recent victories over Celtic and Kilmarnock.
“It’s been amazing,” agreed Wright, now an SFA performance coach at the city’s Broughton High School.
“I am sure most fans would have been thinking a top-six finish would be great, something to build on in coming seasons.
“They’d have bitten your hand off if you’d offered them fourth and called that a great first season back in the top flight. Of course, fourth may yet be as good as it gets and that would perhaps be looked upon as a bit of a disappointment given expectations have risen so much over the past few months.
“Fourth would still be a great effort when you look at the respective budgets and the money other clubs have had to spend but, while they have three difficult games remaining, Hibs will certainly have their eyes firmly fixed on going higher still.”
If Celtic were to clinch back-to-back trebles by beating Motherwell in this month’s Scottish Cup final, fourth place would be good enough to bring another crack at the Europa League, but Wright urged Lennon’s players to leave nothing to chance.
Wright recalled his own bitter experience when Hibs finished third in season 1994-95 – a single point behind the Steelmen as Rangers won the League – but still missed out on Europe. Raith Rovers had beaten Celtic in the final of the Coca-Cola Cup that season and, with a Euro spot going to the winners of that competition in those days, the Hibees stayed at home.
He said: “That was a real blow, to have done so well in the league and for that to happen.
“Who’d have thought Raith would beaten Celtic in a final? Finishing third was a decent achievement, but getting that reward of European football would have made it so much better.”
Although he insists Lennon would probably put Hibs’ success down to a team effort, Wright has no doubts the former Celtic manager lies at the heart of it all.
He said: “Neil will give a lot of praise to his staff and rightly so, but he is the leader and the qualities he expects have shone through, he doesn’t accept anything less than the best from anyone. He’s shown exactly what is required and everyone has responded.
“The thing is, Hibs haven’t just battled away and ground out results. They’ve been, in the main, a pleasure to watch. They entertain with the quality of performance they invariably produce. They outplay teams and create chance after chance.”
Lennon’s pursuit of excellence was, said Wright, apparent during the January transfer window when, rather than settle for Hibs sitting comfortably, he sought to drive the club on by discarding top scorers Simon Murray and Anthony Stokes and replacing them with the then unknown Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren.
He said: “Graeme Mathie, Hibs head of recruitment, would, I’m sure, have been giving names to Neil and he obviously liked the look of these two. I was at the Motherwell game when Kamberi made his debut and straight away he and John McGinn looked to be on the same wavelength.
“I think he is the perfect type of player for that midfield, who will always be able to find him. Hibs are defensively sound. Given the players in front of them, the guys at the back really just need to concentrate on defending and not worry about trying to set things up from that area.
“But the competition to just get a place in that midfield must be unbelievable, McGinn and Dylan McGeouch have been superb all season, Scott Allan has come in and done well and then you’ve got the likes of Danny Swanson and Marvin Bartley.
“It must be fantastic for the players at the moment. Easter Road is a great venue to play, they are getting full houses every home game and the pitch is in perfect condition for guys with their skills.”
Such is the demand for tickets, Hibs slashed Rangers’ allocation for the final game of the season, one which might well decide the final placings. It was a decision greeted by an intemperate outburst from the Ibrox club.
Wright said: “Clubs usually look forward to a visit from either side of the Old Firm because they’ll fill the away end. Rarely do you see them knocking Rangers or Celtic back. But it’s a massive game, one which all Hibs fans want to see and I’m sure the players will get a lift from seeing so many of them there.
“But it’s just another sign of how everything is going in the one direction for Hibs at the moment. And it’s right through the whole club with the youth team winning the league and cup double.”
Wright was at Hampden to hand out the medals after the Hibs youngsters had beaten Aberdeen in the final of the SFA Youth Cup, bringing him face-to-face with two kids he knows well from his time as an SFA development officer in Midlothian.
He said: “I was delighted to be asked to go along and hand out the medals.
“Ryan Porteous played at our Midlothian centre and, while I didn’t coach him, I knew of him while Kevin Waugh was at Newbattle High School where we did programmes. It’s good to see that the club are still developing their own players. You can see the youngsters have talent right through the team and they’ve got a great stage to play on, to be coached and to learn.
“There’s nothing but positives around the club at the moment. Long may that continue.”