ASK any Hibernian fan to name the odd man out in the following list and you should not have to wait too long for an answer. Andy McNeil, Zibi Malkowski, Simon Brown, Ben Williams, Graeme Smith, Yves Makalambay.
You could throw in a few other names, such as Graham Stack and Mark Brown, and the answer would be the same. Williams is the odd one out from that list of Hibs goalkeepers, because he is the only one who looks like being the solution to the club’s long-running problem in the position.
There are mitigating circumstances in some cases – Stack, for instance, had some good games but was dogged by injury while at Easter Road – but the fact remains. Williams has instilled confidence in the Hibs support in a way that no other keeper has since the days of Andy Goram and John Burridge in the first half of the 1990s.
And the fans offered formal recognition of the fact this week, when the Hibs Supporters’ Association named Williams as their player of the year. At a time when striker Leigh Griffiths has done so much to take the club into the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup and keep them in the hunt for the top six, it speaks volumes about the Englishman’s contribution.
“From what I’ve been told round here it’s a bit rare for a keeper to win it,” the 20-year-old from Manchester said. “It’s a lovely accolade to get and obviously something I’m quite proud of. It’s something that comes from supporters who recognise week in, week out what you’re putting into the group, so it’s a nice touch.
“I think that’s three Player of the Year trophies in five years now – I got one award at Colchester and one at Carlisle too. It shows I’m getting to that level of consistency I’ve been striving to achieve.
“It means I’m actively helping and contributing to the team other than the strikers who are putting the ball in the net. It probably means more for a goalkeeper to get it because you see strikers banging in goals left, right and centre who probably deserve to win those type of awards, so it’s nice.”
Since joining Hibs last summer, Williams has made some vital saves from the penalty spot as well as displaying the kind of consistency which evaded his predecessors. So, if Hibs had been suffering from a goalkeeping hoodoo, does he think it has now been exorcised? “Yeah, I’d like to think so,” he said. “The nature of the game is that mistakes will happen, and they will happen in games however large or small. But the process of goalkeeping is to limit those mistakes, because that’s what you get judged on. That’s what I try and do. You need a high level of concentration to ensure mistakes don’t creep into your game. And if you can help out the team with saves or penalties then that’s great.
“I think the penalties have helped me: they’re obviously memorable moments for fans. And the expectation level for a goalkeeper saving a penalty is very low. So to save the ratio I have done is great, and it’s testament to all the work that goes on behind the scenes.”
Having said that, Williams accepted that all that work could count for nothing if Hibs lose their next three games. They are at home to Inverness today then away to Celtic next Saturday as they bid to secure a top-six finish. Then they are at Hampden a fortnight today when they face Falkirk in the cup semi-final. “The next three games are going to define our season. They’re the pressure games that every player wants to be involved in. These games will shape whether we get into Europe and whether we get to a cup final.
“We all strove to get into a top-six position. It’s what everyone wanted and we have pretty much been there all season. It’s in our own hands, so it’s up to us and that’s all we can ask. We have two incredibly difficult games, but if we win both and put six points on the board we’ve done all we can do. And then if the teams around us get better results and a better points total then fair enough, they’re entitled to do that.”
A draw is unlikely to be enough for the home team today. But at least with Williams between the sticks there is a greater likelihood that they will keep a clean sheet than there has been with any other Hibs keeper in the last decade.
Meanwhile, Inverness manager Terry Butcher is confident his players will not slack off after securing the club’s first top-six finish – and has urged them to enjoy the final seven matches now that their initial goal has been reached.
Caley Thistle booked their place in the top half with a 2-1 victory over Ross County and have much to play for with a European slot on offer if they maintain third place in the SPL. Butcher wants to marry the players’ drive with a new-found sense of freedom at Easter Road.
The former England captain said: “There’s a big danger of players switching off now knowing we have achieved that (top six) but I don’t sense that with these players. Every week they drive themselves on and they seem to pull some energy levels and some skill, guts and grit from somewhere. They have just been brilliant.”
Butcher dismissed suggestions his side had hit a slump when they lost five matches out of six earlier this year, including two cup ties. He was entirely vindicated by their subsequent unbeaten run, which stands at five games. Any doubts about their season failing to live up to its early promise have been lifted.
“I feel a lot of pressure has been taken off and the players do too,” Butcher said. “You see them enjoying things and we keep looking at the SPL table and seeing ourselves up there and it’s brilliant. Hopefully we’ll now see a lot more freedom and expression from the players.
“We have enjoyed this season immensely - there have been a lot of highs and who knows where we can finish? If you look at my teams here at Caley Thistle in the past they have always done well in the last games. We have never let things slip.
“The promotion year we won (the last) nine, when we finished seventh we won five out of six, even last year we won games towards the end. I think the players are well fired-up for it.”