On the road again: Hibernian need a Europa League run
It has been a fair old while since Molde showed Hibs the door in European qualifiers, and a lot has happened since then. Managers have come and gone, and players have been in and out, but the agonising feeling of letting a good run slip away so brutally is still raw. 3 goals saw Molde kick the Hibees out in the third qualifying round, and after dismantling Runavík and Asteras Tripolis with relative comfort, it felt like merely a whimper they limped out on after their trip to Norway. But now, after a 2-0 win over luckless Hamilton, you can feel the sense that Hibs are on their way back to Europe once again.
Aberdeen’s form has been criminal this season, and the recent run of one win in ten backs that up, but those wearing the green of Hibernian will be eager to see that continue just a short while longer. Hibs sit six points clear in third knowing their final clash of the season in May will be key, but you feel the fixtures have blessed the Easter Road outfit. Rangers will be out the way after the first post-split game, and then a double against Livingston and St Johnstone follows in suit before the decider for third in May. Celtic come last and although they snatched a point off the Celts in January, it is still a fixture they will have been keen to avoid. Get the job done against the Livi and Saints, and they can probably feel safe in knowing entry to the second round of Europa League qualifiers is in the bag.
Jack Ross was a surprise appointment in the beginning; his previous run at Sunderland had been relatively successful until a heartbreaking defeat to Charlton Athletic in the League One playoff final trapped them in England’s third tier for another year. And then after a wobble in form left them sixth, he was shown the door. We all know the story about Sunderland and their crazy downward spiral, but to see him go still caught everyone off guard. But Hibernian were the club to come calling for his services, and in the bigger picture, his appointment hasn’t necessarily been bad at all. Most managers have struggled to break the duopoly of Celtic and Rangers, and probably will for some time, but to secure Europe once again and reach the semi-finals of the League Cup isn’t a bad season at all.
Most fans of Hibs would agree the cup collapse was a real low point, and rightly it was. 3-0 to St Johnstone without even landing a punch stung after a lengthy wait for their return to Hampden. But there are reasons to be positive about this squad. Alex Gogić has looked a fine bit of recruitment for the team, and Kevin Nisbett’s call up to Scotland has been the reward his form has rightly deserved. The likes of Ryan Porteous and Christian Doidge have also given Hibs fans reasons to be cheerful, but ultimately, the lack of silverware is becoming a real frustration. And this is where the European qualifiers become so important for Ross and company.
The luck of the draw will obviously come into it, but if Hibs can navigate three rounds of qualifiers and get into the group stages, then there can be every confidence that the club can continue to reap the rewards of growing stability under Ross. Prize money and a growing attraction to play in Scotland will help as more teams progress in Europe, and the successful run of Rangers boosting the coefficient and Celtic’s appearance in the group stages maintaining their presence only makes the process easier over years to come. If Hibs can survive their final fixtures and bag that third place finish, and show some courage come the summer qualifiers, it can only be onwards and upwards for an already progressing team.
Ironing out the creases will be key to this side, as they have already shown they can challenge both Celtic and Rangers having drawn against both. The next hurdle should be beating them, but preventing avoidable losses against the lesser teams like Ross County and Dundee United are going to do more for them in the long term if they want to break into the top two or even put up a title charge. Ross has some critics for his choices of formation and his style of play, but one thing everyone can agree on, is that things are going in the right direction. It will take a lot to see the day they win a trophy, but Alan Stubbs showed how to handle up and coming talent on the big stage. Make Europe their new stage, and surely the accolades will come.
Written by Ruaraidh Britton