It really wasn’t so long ago Lee Johnson found himself one of two main characters in a blockbuster cruelly titled ‘El Sackico’.

The Hibs manager prevailed, emphatically, at the expense of co-star Jim Goodwin, and the ensuing sequel appears to be scripted as a tale of redemption. Whether Johnson really was on the brink of losing his job that day remains up for debate, but his team certainly were not in a great place.

True, they were undefeated in their last two prior to facing Goodwin’s calamitous Aberdeen, but a pair of bruising defeats to Hearts – one in the Premiership, the other in the Scottish Cup – after a run of only two wins in 11 were enough to put the former Sunderland boss under considerable pressure.

He certainly projected the image of a man feeling the strain: public lashings of his players combined with subtle digs at the board do not often end well for managers. I myself wrote in January that Johnson and Hibs bore all the hallmarks of a doomed relationship, and everyone at the club seemed decidedly fed-up.

Johnson has never minced his words in front of the press and, from a neutral perspective, often comes across as refreshingly candid in an environment where many work exceptionally hard to keep their guard up. But such honesty does not chime so well with disgruntled supporters – the right to speak your mind into the microphone is seemingly earned by serving up results on the pitch.

There was a distinct sense of ‘talk is cheap’ among Hibs fans, and they were growing tired of listening to their manager. Honestly, I had grown rather certain that a parting of ways had become borderline inevitable.

But it appears I may have been wrong.

When Ryan Porteous departed for Watford on January 27 – and with Kevin Nisbet seemingly destined to follow him out the door - the odds of Hibs turning the transfer window into a positive one felt rather long. Fate, however, conspired to keep Nisbet in Edinburgh and the late arrivals which accompanied that unexpected development look increasingly positive.

New signings James Jeggo, CJ Egan-Riley and Matthew Hoppe were all involved in an impressive 4-1 win away at Livingston on Saturday, one that extends their unbeaten league run to seven matches. Johnson’s side have won five of those, and the gap to Hearts in third place is now five points.

Full-time celebrations at the Tony Macaroni Arena were impassioned, and no doubt fuelled by the emotion of an extremely difficult few weeks at Easter Road. Ron Gordon had made his battle with cancer public on February 3, and the sudden announcement of his tragic death just a fortnight later stopped Scottish football in its tracks.

Tragedy, however, has a way of fostering unity. Johnson specifically highlighted the ‘togetherness’ from top to bottom as being particularly satisfying in Livingston, dedicating the result to Gordon and his family. There are signs now that the late chairman’s determination not only to stick with Johnson, but to provide him with further backing in the transfer market - despite spiralling results - may be paying dividends.

When Hibs took an alarming dip earlier in the season – losing seven from eight after winning four consecutively – many of their underlying numbers pointed to a side who should not have been faring so poorly. The mere mention of such metrics is enough to raise some punters’ blood pressure, but there must be a reason clubs rely so heavily on advanced statistics these days.

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Without delving into too much boring detail – those numbers suggested Hibs were not as bad as results would have you believe. And now, with a touch of patience and a few shrewd signings, that might just be playing out on the pitch.

With 11 games remaining, it is certainly not out of the question that they could hunt down Hearts in third place. The week ahead certainly feels pivotal. Hibs will host Rangers at Easter Road on Wednesday, while Hearts head down the M8 to Celtic Park.

Johnson has undoubtedly inspired a revival these past few weeks, but it could do with a statement result to confirm Hibs really are on the up and up under his leadership. Rangers’ league results have been impressively consistent with Michael Beale in charge, yet performances are consistently unspectacular.

If there was ever a time for Hibs to spring a surprise against one of Glasgow’s big two, it is now. Hearts themselves remain in good form, but it’s no slight on Robbie Neilson and his players to predict that taking anything from an imperious Celtic at Parkhead – especially with a cup quarter-final to consider days later – might be too much for them.

If results go Hibs’ way in midweek, we would quickly move from the possibility of a race for third playing out in the capital to a tantalising reality. Considering where they found themselves at the turn of the year, it’s quite a turnaround, and doubly so when you factor in that they have hardly been aided by a collapse over at Tynecastle.

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Hearts’ form has carried a whiff of patchiness since February, but a routine victory over St Johnstone on Saturday suggests there’s no immediate cause for alarm, at least where their own results are concerned. They will, however, be noting progress from their neighbours.

That progress may just give rise to some tension on Gorgie but, for us neutral observers, the prospect of Hearts and Hibs going at it for that Europa League qualifying place is an exciting one. The race for the title is realistically over – but the real excitement in the Premiership is often found out with the Glasgow bubble, anyway.

It looked wholly unlikely for much of the season, but Hibs and Hearts may just be about to bless us with a classic sprint to the finish line.