Normally players will scan the fixture list and make a mental note of the home matches, earmarking them as ones to particularly relish.
With Hibs, you wonder whether this is the case. Their form at Easter Road has long been an issue and pre-dates even Pat Fenlon’s reign. Highlighting this seeming aversion to playing in front of their own supporters was last weekend’s victory against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park. Is it a coincidence that Hibs’ first win of the season occurred away from home, where they have already suffered a worst-ever defeat this season?
Remarkably, Hibs have won only once at Easter Road in the league all year – against the already relegated Dundee on the last day of last season.
There is an evident unease when the players fail to stamp their authority on a game at Easter Road that seems to translate to the supporters, something that doesn’t help their prospects. The visit from Ross County this afternoon is perhaps another invitation for the fans to begin fearing the worst: the Highlanders defeated Hibs three times last season, including their only meeting at Easter Road. Defender Paul Hanlon denies that the players have been affected by the heightened level of expectation that exists when they play at home. However, he accepts that there is a need to get the supporters onside from the start – these fans can’t be blamed for getting frustrated if they have not been given anything to cheer by the players.
“We want to get the fans back and push on from here,” he acknowledged yesterday. “It’s difficult here sometimes, you want them to be cheering all the time. But we’re the ones on the pitch that need to make them cheer and get behind us. If we’re not producing the goods then they are the ones who are paying their money to come and see us.”
The supporters who turn up this afternoon have been given a couple of reasons for fresh enthusiasm; Hibs are set to include new signing Paul Heffernen following the well-regarded striker’s arrival from Kilmarnock yesterday, while new on-loan winger Abdellah Zoubir is also set to figure. Hanlon insists that the players have no excuses if they fail to excite the fans, who have continued to turn up in decent numbers this season.
“Hibs are a big club with big expectations so we need to live up to them,” he said. “We might get a bit more leeway now we have won a game but if we start off poorly or we’re not playing the way they should they are going to get on our backs.
“I’m sure it’s the same at most clubs. We just need to concentrate on our performance and put on a show for them. We set our standard last week. We went a goal down at Kilmarnock and came out for the second half and just went for it, really. We showed how good we can be at times. It’s about putting it all together, really.”
Hanlon has noticed the affects of last weekend’s win in training this week. The players have been buoyed by the way they reacted to the wonder goal from Barry Nicholson which put Kilmarnock 1-0 up. Two second-half goals from Liam Craig means Hibs are not under extra pressure to secure their first win of the season against County today. Now Hanlon wants Hibs to build on last week’s comeback.
“We knew we weren’t too far away, it just needed to click into place and thankfully it did there,” he said, with reference to the victory at Rugby Park. “I’m sure every team is the same, when the season starts you just want to get that first win on the board. I thought we were unlucky to get beaten in our first two games, we maybe didn’t do enough to win them but we certainly didn’t deserve to lose them. We were desperate to get that win and push on.”
As for the targets, Hanlon simply wants to ensure Hibs finish in the top six. Not since season 2009/10 have the Easter Road managed this.
“First and foremost we have got to make the top six,” he said. “You could be sitting sixth all season and finish in the top six and then you still have a chance of finishing in Europe with a late push like St Johnstone did last season. So that’s where we have to be and anything higher than that we’ll be delighted.”
Although he scored the winner against them in January in Dingwall, Ivan Sproule will face his former side for the first time today at Easter Road. “I’d imagine Ivan will get a good reception for what he did for this club,’ said Hanlon. “I’m sure the fans will welcome him back warmly.”
Despite an obvious gulf between the two clubs in terms of spending power, County manager Derek Adams insists it is a financial chasm that can be bridged on the field of play.
His Hibs counterpart Fenlon was able to fork out £200,000 for defender James Collins this summer, while County’s comparatively tight budget had them scouring the bargain bins of Scotland and Europe.
But Adams will still take his team to the capital believing they can glean three valuable points. He said: “We’ve done well against Hibs in the past. There’s no doubt they’ve changed personnel over the summer and they even took in a £200,000 signing. They are a team looking to strengthen and move up the league. We’re trying to get above them. We have good players in the squad. We finished above Hibernian in the league table last season and we’d like to try and win on Saturday and go above them this weekend.
“Outside of the Old Firm, these are the biggest clubs in the land but we are keen to try and compete with them as we did last season.”