The Conclusion to the previous season (2015-16) had encouraged a previously absent sense of optimism to descend upon Easter Road, and with it came the former Celtic manager, Neil Lennon. His appointment coming after the departure of Alan Stubbs and his coaching team: John Doolan and Andy ‘Taff’ Holden. All of whom had endeared themselves to the Easter Road faithful due to what they achieved on that momentous May afternoon.Hibernian’s best signing in recent years, chief executive, Leeann Dempster, had identified Lennon as her primary target and had displayed a great deal of admiration for Lennon since the beginning of the recruitment process. This glowing recommendation alone was enough to sell Hibernian supporters on Lennon, not to mention his plethora of trophies won as manager of Celtic and the fact that he had been linked with a return to the most prestigious post in Scottish football just weeks earlier.
With Lennon, as expected, came a variety of new recruits on the pitch: Robust former English premier league hit-man Grant Holt, Andrew Shinnie, Brian Graham and Israeli international goalkeeper Ofir Marciano were the most prestigious recruits and were acquired to supplement an already stable squad. Jason Cummings felt like a new signing following his U-turn on signing a contract extension. A new four-year deal ensured that Hibs have one of the most erratic, feared young strikers in the Scottish game for at least another season, and will receive a significant financial package if he continues down his projected development path and inevitably follows through on his aspirations to move south of the border. Despite the fact that Cummings had just signed a long-term contract extension, there was still significant interest and the cabbage rejected a bid in excess of one million pounds from Peterborough United for Cummings’ services and, as a by-product, sent out a statement to the rest of the league. Following his most impressive season in the green and white, Paul Hanlon also signed a new contract with Hibs and opted to continue his blossoming defensive partnership from the previous season with Darren McGregor. Great Business. Hibs pre-season wouldn’t be complete without a tedious transfer saga, and this season was no different. The lucky contestant this summer was Scottish cup idol Liam Henderson. Lauded almost unanimously by Hibs fans following a passionate and highly productive season-long loan deal from Celtic last season that culminated in two assists in the Scottish cup final, Henderson was the definition of a fan favourite. Unfortunately for the cabbage, new Celtic manager Brendon Rodgers knows a good player when he has one and factored him into his plans for the upcoming season. Nothing materialised. Despite all the recruits throughout the club in the summer, something was absent – empty seats. The second highest amount of season tickets purchased in the clubs illustrious history with around eleven thousand season tickets sold for the Leith San Siro for the upcoming season. The foundations were laid for a successful season and promotion was undoubtedly the primary objective and the desired outcome.
Making an impact in continental competition comes as a bonus to the vast majority of Scottish teams, let alone one playing outside the top division of Scottish football, but that’s the position Hibs found themselves in ahead of the new season. Qualifying due to our historic Scottish cup exploits of the previous season. Hibs were entered into the second qualifying round and were met by seasoned European compotators in the form of Danish side Brondby IF. Despite coming off of a fairly average Danish Superliga season that saw them scrape into the Europa league, Brondby had started the season in fine form and due to the Danish Superliga scheduling, had already began their domestic season. They had to earn the right to play the Scottish cup holders and did so by dispatching of Icelandic side Valur Reykjavik 10-1 on aggregate in the first qualifying round. It was important to not read into that result as fans and to not needlessly dissect or analyse that result, as a club as the standard of opposition (in this case, Valur Reykjavik) has to be taken into account. Valur are fairly negligible on the European map. Analysing that result in isolation could have led to intimidation and the installation of an inferiority complex. Both of which have cost Hibernian in recent European outings. However, there was a great belief from the terraces that Hibs would vault over this psychological hurdle because with the appointment of Neil Lennon came vast European experience. Hibs record against Scandinavian opposition was patchy but never had they entered a first leg with such high spirits. Over thirteen thousand were in attendance on a postcard-esque Leith evening, as Brondby were gifted a lucrative away goal within seconds. Goalkeeper Otso Virtanen’s inability to hold onto a shot/back-pass allowed opportunistic striker Kamil Wilczek to put Brondby 1-0 up. Sending the noisy band of delighted Danes into raptures in the south stand. Hibs dominated possession for the majority of the game but rarely translated that into chances and were far too ponderous against a well structured, stubborn Brondby defence. Jason Cummings did, however, have a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out for by the Spanish officials for offside. A fiery Neil Lennon was sent to the stands for his protests and would consequently be handed a five-game European touchline ban. Leaving assistant manager Gary Parker isolated on the touchline for the return leg in Copenhagen.
Brondby managed the first leg well and looked a threat on the counter-attack but there was expectancy on them to attack Hibs in the second leg in front of their home fans. With that in mind, Neil Lennon selected debutant Goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw over Otso Virtanen, who paid for his first leg error. This would prove to be an inspired choice as Laidlaw would go to make a plethora of good saves to keep Hibs in the tie. The longer the game went on the confidence growth in the Hibs players was almost visible and Hibs eventually claimed the holy grail of an away goal. David Gray poking the ball into the back of the net after Brondby failed to clear a corner. A Bumper away following in excess of one thousand were rewarded and Hibs would take the game all the way to penalties. Ross Laidlaw was unlucky not to save a couple of penalties and eventually the tie was settled thanks to a rare ‘super’ John McGinn (pictured above) error, as he saw a poor penalty saved comfortably. Elimination was the outcome, but there were many positives to take back to Leith: Two very different but equally encouraging performances, Competent displays by new signings Grant Holt and Ross Laidlaw and a rendition of ‘Stokes is on fire’ in a square in Copenhagen that will stay with the fans forever. This short-lived European venture only enhanced the optimism around Hibernian ahead of the new domestic season.
Lennon’s tenure couldn’t have started much better, with Hibernian winning their first five league games with varying levels of ease. A symbolic win on the opening day of the season away to freshly established nemesis/’bogey team’, Falkirk was the ideal way to consign the events of last season’s play-offs to history. Jason Cummings grabbed a brace to celebrate his new contract in a 2-1 victory for Hibs and they were quickly starting to justify their tag as destined champions. Lennon established continuity in the team and won in various styles to hold a one hundred percent record after the first five games. The dominant, free-flowing display at home to Greenock Morton and the firm, robust 1-0 win in Dumbarton would have been equally as pleasing for supporters, as the hibees showcased versatility and a steely edge that had previously been absent. Excusable league cup elimination to Queen of the South and an Irn-Bru cup exit had done nothing to dampen the spirits of the Easter road faithful. But, when any team is unbeaten in the league, the question is always posed: how will they react to defeat or adversity? And Hibs got the chance to answer that on match day six when Ayr united came away from the capital victorious after a 2-1 win. A bizarre game that saw a Jason Cummings wonder goal and a superb counter attacking strategy deployed by Ayr united, but ultimately the game changed on the decision to send-off Marvin Bartley (a red card that would later be rescinded) with Hibs 1-0 up at the time of the incident. Lennon reacted swiftly and dropped Jason Cummings, who Lennon had previously sighted Hibs as being ‘over reliant on’ to provide goals, and struck gold with the newly formed strike partnership consisting of Martin Boyle and Grant Holt. This was never more successful than the reverse fixture with Ayr united in November when Boyle got a brace of goals. Despite this, it was the hibees defensive displays that were making headlines. Hibs were matching the best defensive records in Europe and the defensive base of Fontaine, Hanlon, McGregor and Marciano(goalkeeper) were forming a cohesive unit. However, following Hibs most dominating and clinical performance of the season against Queen of the south that resulted in a 4-0 victory, came an unforeseen dip in form that coincided with an injury crisis in midfield. A winless run of four games ensued, including a damaging defeat in Dundee against potential title rivals Dundee united. These games were not comprised of the usual incompetency that came with poor Hibs runs in previous seasons, but there was certainly a change in intensity and things became far too pedestrian. Cummings was reintroduced with great effect and the cabbage are back on top of the table for new year thanks to a prodigious free-kick from emergency loan signing Kris Commons against Falkirk in the recent 2-1 win. A miraculous goal to round off a miraculous year.
2017 promises to be turbulent, with Dundee united mounting a serious title bid and riding through a transition phase with extreme competency, but Hibs have no excuse and can’t afford to fall at the hurdles that have hindered them in previous league campaigns. Despite the settled and diverse nature of the squad, width is a necessity for the second half of the season to support a sometimes isolated frontline. Neil Lennon’s disconcerting tinkering up front has led to several partnerships and several groans from the stands but this will be justified when identifies a balanced frontline. With Boyle having his most productive season, Jason Cummings on course for twenty goals, James Keatings due to return to fitness and more physical alternatives like Holt and Graham to choose from, rate of goals shouldn’t be an issue for Neil Lennon. The influential John McGinn and Fraser Fyvie are due to return in the coming weeks, bringing with them a wealth of energy and, particularly in McGinn’s case, irreplaceable transitional play. There is an overwhelming sense that the pieces are falling into place for Hibernian and with the appropriate recruitment, we could see an immovable object begin to assert itself at the very zenith of the championship in the form of Neil Lennon’s Hibernian.