Hibernian FC: A return to the Promised Land
With a League Cup final and the Scottish Cup victory last season, automatic promotion achieved last week has capped off a successful couple of seasons for Hibernian FC and puts an end to their absence from the Premiership for 3 seasons.
It was an unfortunate, but fitting summary of the season. It was the 25th of May 2014, half of Edinburgh was lost for words, devastated…but in all honesty not totally surprised. Hibernian had totally capitulated, they had thrown away what was not unreasonably considered a tie winning 2-0 away win in the first leg to lose 2-0 at home, relegation beckoned. Young striker Jason Cummings missing the penalty in front of the home end confirmed their place in the 2nd tier for the following season.
This was not a completely unexpected set of circumstances however, as Hibernian’s malaise had set in much earlier in the season. The Edinburgh outfit started the season with European qualifiers due to their previous season’s cup run, but their European presence was brief following a 7-0 home embarrassment in the hands of Swedish side Malmo FF. The writing was on the wall early on for manager Pat Fenlon and by the 1st of November he had received his marching orders, with 4 wins in as many months the Irishman’s time was up.
The board then decided, to the anger of the fans, to install former Rangers star Terry Butcher as manager following his impressive work with Inverness. Butcher’s strong history with Rangers was never going to help him at Easter Road, but it made it very easy for him to become the target for the wrath of the fans when the team’s performances went from poor to totally and utterly woeful under his stewardship. 9 losses from the season’s final 12 games was never going to keep a side up, playoffs were on the way. Fellow Edinburgh club Hearts of Midlothian being deducted 15 points at the start of the season due to administration woes was the only thing that kept Hibs from being relegated automatically.
The club was at a low point, people spoke of the hardest moment for Hibs since the club almost went bankrupt in the 90’s. For a club of Hibsernian’s size, relegation was not acceptable.
Automatic promotion for Hibs was always going to be a struggle in their first season down, rivals Hearts joined them, so did Rangers having been promoted from League 1 the previous season. The club hired Alan Stubbs, who was working as a youth coach at Everton to lead the club, a decision that has been totally vindicated in hindsight.
It was a rough start for Stubbs, arriving at the club having only a handful of first team players on the books, having to build a squad almost from from scratch. With two wins and four losses from their first 6 games it was a tough start, but the squad eventually came together. Hibs finished the season in second place (behind Hearts) and having reached the semi-final of the Scottish cup. However playoffs weren’t kind to Hibernian, losing 2-1 on aggregate to a Rangers side that was eventually denied promotion by Motherwell. Losing in the playoffs was never going to be easy, but both losing to Rangers and in a season that Hearts were promoted made it particularly galling.
The season will be remembered primarily though as the breakout of Jason Cummings, the young striker getting over his previous season’s disappointment by scoring 21 goals in 42 appearances for the club.
Hibs’ second season in the 2nd tier got off to a much better start than their first. Losing Scott Allan, the clubs’ best midfielder, was ameliorated by receiving Dylan McGeouch permanently and Liam Henderson until the end of the season in return.
The summer signing of John McGinn (better than Zidane as the fans’ song goes) turned out to be an inspired move with the creative midfielder filling the void created by the departure of Scott Allan. Having a settled squad from the off helped Stubbs’ men win 12 of their first 15 matches, the future looked bright, automatic promotion beckoned. It was smooth sailing for Stubbs’ men, but fate conspired to throw some storms in their way.
Rangers under new boss Mark Warburton were the season’s strongest side who claimed automatic promotion, in the end by a comfortable 11 points. It was Peter Houston’s Falkirk though who were the surprise package of the season, pipping Hibs for the second spot on the table, and a play off tie fewer. After getting over the line in the first round of playoffs against Raith, Hibs eventually lost to a last minute goal against Falkirk, destined to have a third season in the Championship.
Jason Cummings continued his rise to become the footballer that his potential suggested he could be, scoring 25 goals in 48 appearances, a rate better than a goal every two games.
What really stood out though in this season was Hibernian’s cup run. Five league cup victories saw Hibernian make it to the League cup final, where they narrowly lost to Ross Country It was in the Scottish Cup however, where Alan Stubbs and the team cemented themselves as heroes in Hibernian folklore. A strong cup run which included 3 victories over Premiership teams (including a 1-0 home win over city rivals Hearts), culminated in a cup final victory. Hibs ended the club’s 114 year Scottish Cup drought with an injury time winning header by David Gray to finish off the comeback against bitter rivals Rangers
Third Time Lucky?
Alan Stubbs’ management was not to go unnoticed south of the border, and in the summer was approached by English Championship side Rotherham with an offer he couldn’t refuse (Hindsight suggested perhaps he should have, but alas it is what it is). Hibs appointed former Celtic cult hero Neil Lennon to replace Stubbs.
With both Hearts and Rangers now promoted, this was Hibernian’s opportunity to reinforce their position as the Championship’s strongest club and achieve automatic promotion. The start to the season suggested this might be the case winning the first five matches, however results started to plateau shortly. Although 1 loss in 18 matches starting from December ensured that Hibs had enough of a lead at the top that promotion was mathematically ensured on the 15th of April. Hibs would be heading back to the promised land!
Can they compete?
The question to be asked now about the club is whether or not they can compete in the top flight? Will they need a complete overhaul? The early signs would suggest that they absolutely can, without a major overhaul. This is positive as given the relatively paltry sums sloshing around Scottish Football a club like Hibernian would not have the money to make too many changes to the squad.
Too many changes shouldn’t be too necessary though, Hibs have proved already in cup football these past two seasons that they can more than match it having won 8 matches from 12 attempts against Premiership opponents, crucially though only two of those matches were defeats. Signing a player to help Jason Cummings with the goalscoring load would be a good idea for Hibs, but the biggest transfer window victory will be keeping hold of key players such as Cummings and McGinn.
After a three year absence, Hibs are back. Given this season’s average attendance is in excess of 15,000, and that 8000 season tickets have already been sold the fans are already on board. Add fan buy in to an already Premiership capable team, a fantastic manager in Neil Lennon, as well as a brilliant CEO in Leeann Dempster and Hibs are ready to make this spell in the Premiership a permanent one.