Hibernian v Dundee United: Full Easter Road primed for stirring summit clash
|Scottish Championship: Hibernian v Dundee United|
|Date: Friday, 6 January Venue: Easter Road Stadium, Edinburgh Kick-off: 19:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Watch on BBC Alba, listen on BBC Radio Scotland|
Something odd and exhilarating is happening on Easter Road, a sleepy hollow stadium recast as a place of noise and colour and hope.
When Hibs host their Championship rivals, and fellow feel-good story, Dundee United on Friday night the 'house full' sign will hang proudly on the gate. More than 20,000 will be there, a number that will drive Hibs' average home attendance in the league this season north of the current figure of 14,857.
That's worth pondering for a second. It's 5,566 more than Hibs' average home crowd last season or, put another way, an increase of 60%. Sure, the campaign is only halfway through but we're supposed to be living in straitened times for football fans, we're supposed to be disillusioned with the state of the game, the cost of it, the quality of it, the administration of it.
Hibs are not so much bucking the trend as taking the trend, rolling it into a ball and volleying it ferociously into the night-time sky. Their average attendance so far this season is their highest since 1972-73 and their third highest since 1960-61.
Their crowds against Raith Rovers and Ayr this season were bigger than the number who turned up for the last top-flight Edinburgh derby in 2014. They drew more for Dumbarton and Queen of the South than they did for a game against Celtic in their last season in the Premiership. The last time Hibs hosted Dundee United in the top division, only 9,608 turned up. Now, in the division below, the number is doubling.
The glory of the Scottish Cup win is part of it, the thrill of a title chase is another. Neil Lennon's team have the ambition of a top-six Premiership side and the budget to match. They have to go up, purely and simply. Lennon has one job - promotion - and the masses are rallying to the cause in a very significant way.
The fact that they have a large financial advantage over Ray McKinnon's United and yet hold just a single-point lead must be a source of frustration. United don't look like they're going away anytime soon. If the return of the Hibs crowd is an extraordinary story then McKinnon's work in rebuilding United from the dog days of last season is another.
Last May, United were an unholy mess. A team had been relegated and needed dismantling. A manager had been sacked and needed replacing. A support had been alienated and needed to know that things were going to change. Not many believed it - or believed in Stephen Thompson, the chairman. There was bitterness in the air. For their last home of the game season, United played Partick Thistle. They couldn't even get 5,000 through the gate.
United's average crowd has fallen this season, but by nowhere near the levels people might have thought back in May. With the Dundee derbies bringing in more than 11,000 a pop and Celtic and Aberdeen bringing in 10,000, give or take, their average attendance in 2015-16 was 7,969.
Now it's 7,124 - a fall, yes, but a soft one compared to the resounding thud that was predicted by so many at the end of last season. McKinnon hasn't just been a fine football manager, he's been akin to King Canute, turning back the Tannadice tide of doom and gloom.
McKinnon has transformed last season's sieve-like defence into something a whole lot more robust, he's brought bite and order to his midfield and in Tony Andreu, he's brought in a reliable goalscorer. He's also galvanised some of the broken men from 2016. They're doing it in a lesser league, of course, but given the calamity he inherited, McKinnon has done a wonderful job.
He's signed well, either permanent deals or loans - and he's had to. He couldn't afford to make too many mistakes in the reconstruction of his team. Of the United team that beat Hibs 1-0 in the league in December, six of them were McKinnon signings and most of them had one thing in common - experience.
Andreu is 28, William Edjenguele is 29, Cammy Bell is 30, Willo Flood is 31, Nick van der Velden is 35. Also, Frank van der Struijk, 31, helped bolster the United defence in the early months of the season, before injury took him out. The rearguard has been their rock. They've conceded just three goals in their last 10 games.
There's been personnel change at Easter Road, too, but nowhere near as much. Lennon hasn't had a lot of luck with injuries but he's in the fortunate position of being able to recruit at a higher level than McKinnon.
The prime example of that is Kris Commons coming in on loan - with the possibility of a permanent deal.
Commons was magnificent for Lennon at Celtic and though he can't yet be match fit after so long on the Parkhead sidelines, he's already had an impact. A goal and an assist last weekend got Hibs over the line against Falkirk. Commons - a creative machine on his best form - could be the pivotal capture of the Championship season.
Friday won't be decisive, but it'll be stirring. Potentially one of the games - and atmospheres - of the season.