Back Home Again

Well its been a while. Nearly 4 months to be precise. I think the shock of us finally wrapping up the Championship title at long last sent me into Hibernation. But I’m fully refreshed, and already enjoying our return to the Premiership.

It felt odd for us to have our season finished in early May for the first time in a while, and even weirder for our last few games to be meaningless, but it was lovely to be able to sit back and enjoy the play offs for once. They’re actually quite entertaining eh!! Who would’ve known!!

Once the season ended, it all became about rebuilding for the season ahead. I have to say, I’m really pleased with the business done over the summer. Ok, there was points in July where some of us started to get a bit nervy, but now we’re basically done, our overall business is impressive. Our squad is now slightly smaller, but I’d say it now has more quality, plus we have some players from the academy who look ready to be fully involved in the first team.

I was delighted to see us get Ofir Marciano in permanently. Although he wasn’t overly troubled during last season, he has a calmness about him, which seems to breed to the defence, he is capable of outstanding saves, and definitely has a touch of class about him. He’s probably the best keeper we’ve had in 15-20 years.

We’ve added great experience to the defence in Whittaker and Ambrose. Efe had a number of doubters to prove wrong last season, and he done so with ease. Hopefully he continues in that vain. He will be under more pressure from attackers than he previously was in the Championship or at Celtic so hopefully he copes with it, as on his day he is a class apart. Whittaker is also a very shrewd move. We’ve already seen him perform at right back and centre mid during pre season, and I’m sure as the season goes on we’ll see him appear at left back and either side of the midfield. Despite his age, he’s clearly still fit, and has much more awareness than the young lad that left us 10 years ago.

In midfield we lost Fraser Fyvie, and Andy Shinnie, but early signs indicate that Slivka and Swanson will be upgrades. Slivka is a very intruiging signing. Good enough to be on the books of Juventus and play regularly in the 2nd divisions in Holland and Italy, as well as being a key man for the Lithuanian national team. He appears to be comfortable on the ball and can play in several different midfield roles.

The biggest area to sort was always going to be the forward line. In Cummings, Holt and Keatings we lost 29 leagues goals from last season. I feel that Lennon always intended to try and get these goals from other areas of the pitch, but in Simon Murray we’ve brought in a hard working, quick striker who can get in behind the defence. He seems a good finisher but isn’t quite as technical a player as Jason was. He’s had a really strong pre-season, surpassing most people’s expectations, but now is when the real test will come. I think some people forget tho that he does have some Premier league experience, scoring 7 goals in Dundee Utd relegation season. That was his first time at that left and he wasn’t a regular so I feel he’ll prove an important addition as the season passes. Our next signing in this area was to replace the cult hero, Grant Holt. Neil Lennon clearly likes to have a big strong target man as an option so he can adjust his tactics when required, and Davydas Matulevicious, or Big Peas & Gravy as me and my mates call him, certainly fits that mould. We’re yet to see too much of him but he has international experience, has played at a decent level and certainly looks more mobile than Holt. I’m sure he’ll be an important player when we need to be a bit more direct in matches.
And then finally, we all knew we needed a “key” player up front. Someone with that extra bit of quality, and someone to get the fans excited. It’s fair to say, Anthony Stokes ticks those boxes. Yes it was drawn out, and yes he’s lacking match sharpness, but the fact he turned down more financially rewarding offers elsewhere tells me he wants to be here, and secondly, we all know what this man is capable of when he gets up to full speed. He’s also a big game player, which we certainly have more of in this division.

And apparently, as far as transfer activity goes, with 3 weeks still to go, that’s us all done. Personally, if that’s the case, then I’m fine with that. We’ve got a side full of quality, capable of lining up in several different formations, and able to adjust to different tactics, BUT, I have a feeling we’re not done yet. Most still expect Brian Graham to leave, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see us bring another one in. My choice would be another wide player; left wing preferably, and Lennon certainly implied in last week’s press conference that he has one particular position in mind if he did manage to add to the squad, so we may still have some interest in transfer deadline day after all!! There is still the possibility of Kris Commons being added too. Both he and Lennon have spoken about it recently, and it seems that it just all depends on if Kris thinks he is up to playing at this level still after his back op.

Pre-season was interesting with us playing in the group stages of the league cup for the first time. I know some people aren’t necessarily fans of the set up, but I quite enjoyed having competitive games so early, especially seeing as we dealt with our group games pretty well. Although Lennon said the games were being treated as pre-season, it at least gave the games a bit of an edge, and the Ross County game gave us a wee test at the level we’ll be playing at this season. The games also allowed Simon Murray to get some competitive goals under his belt which is great.

It is great for the season to finally be up and running properly though. I spent all of last week looking forward to the match on Saturday (whoever would’ve thought that would be said about a league game against Partick Thistle), and the game didn’t disappoint. We started slowly, and Thistle deserved their lead. While Efe maybe misjudged the pass and tried to intercept, it was a nice through back and a good finish by Erskine. That goal seemed to bring us to life though, and although there was a slice of luck involved in how the ball broke to Boyle, he finished neatly to get us back on terms. I felt it was really one way traffic after that. We controlled the game well and Simon Murray ran himself into the ground to act as our first line of defence. Once we scored the penalty to make it 3-1, it felt like we then made the decision to almost play the game out, make no rash decisions to leave us short at the back, and just make sure we took all 3 points. A 3-1 win against a team that finished top 6 last season isn’t to be sniffed at, and we can now confidently move onto Ibrox next week.

Talking of Ibrox, it will be a very interesting day next Saturday. Hibs fans aren’t welcomed much anyway to Ibrox, but seeing as this is the first meeting since THAT day in May last year, it certainly adds some further spice to the game. Players like Wallace, Miller, Tavernier, will all be up for the game, and their fans even more so. On a serious note, I hope the police are switched on as I feel the Hibs fans will be running the gauntlet a bit when entering and leaving the stadium, never mind being offered cups of Bovril and coins during the game from the home end. Hopefully we return along the M8 with 3pts and nothing else.

The result of the early Cup groups meant the Round of 16 is upon us already, with us entertaining Ayr this evening. This is a game we can’t take lightly. Ayr have been banging the goals in so far and know how it feels to win at Easter Road in the last 12 months. If we go about our business correctly though, we should be in the Quarter final draw tomorrow evening. Hopefully we see some of the players that didn’t fully feature on Saturday such as Slivka, Big Peas & Gravy, and maybe a start for Stokes. The more match sharp he is for Saturday, the better; although James Tavernier may not agree!!

It is great to be back where we belong though. There was a real buzz around the stadium on Saturday and we really are a different beast than we were 3-4 years ago. We feel as if we are finally heading in the RIGHT direction, and it feels enjoyable again. A feeling we probably didn’t have for 3-4 seasons before our relegation. Long may it continue!!!