It isn’t hyperbolic to suggest Hibs are entering a crucial juncture in their season. Four games without a victory, three of which came against bottom-six sides from last term, including Saturday’s draw with Motherwell, have tempered early-season expectations and what follows should go a long way to deciding where Hibs will be competing in the 2017-18 Ladbrokes Premiership.
Manager Neil Lennon appeared overly optimistic when he stated earlier this year that second place was the aim in the club’s first campaign back in the top flight. But then they confidently dismantled Partick Thistle on the opening day and won at Ibrox, suggesting the newcomers were ready to emulate rivals Hearts and secure European qualification in their returning season. Since then, however, results have taken a turn for the worse, with the second-half capitulation at the weekend the nadir.
Hibs looked home and hosed when Anthony Stokes, pictured, robbed Cedric Kipre on the edge of the area and produced a smart finish to double the hosts’ advantage. It was the Irish striker’s second of the game after he dispatched a first-half penalty following a foul on Martin Boyle. From there, though, Motherwell came roaring back. Craig Tanner’s introduction sparked them into life. The substitute crossed for Louis Moult to head home from close range, before the striker struck again to level the match.
In the end it was the visitors who looked more likely to claim all three points, leaving Lennon furious with his underperforming players. “He wasn’t happy with how we saw out the game, but I don’t think any of us were. We put ourselves in a great position and then just lost grip of the game. We stopped playing and, at the end, we were probably happy just to hold on,” said Stokes.
“We’re disappointed and frustrated because it’s probably been the case that, over the last few games, we’ve been playing well and not getting the three points. I think towards the end we could have played a few more channel balls, pushed them up the pitch, because we were dropping deeper and deeper.
“We just need to scrap it out a bit better, maybe be a bit more physical. Not nastier. Just seeing out the game, playing dogged football.”
Tomorrow’s Betfred Cup match with Livingston couldn’t come at a better time for the Easter Road side. Hibs will be heavy favourites to win the home tie and return to Hampden for their seventh cup semi-final appearance in the past six years. Furthermore, it would give them a much-needed confidence boost ahead of this weekend’s trip to Ross County. Fail to find three points there and it’s not going to get any easier, with games against Celtic and Aberdeen to follow.
“The quality is there. If you look back at the last three games, we’ve dominated,” added Stokes. “We’ve come up as a newly-promoted team and drawn the last three games. But look at the squad, the players the manager has brought in, that has created expectation – off the back of winning silverware last year, the Scottish Cup the year before too. The club is definitely on the up. It’s down to us to entertain the fans, put points on the board and win games.”
While Hibs are seeking to buck the trend after the last four games, Motherwell are looking to continue theirs. This was their fourth match without defeat, and while they may have been disappointed to lose their winning streak, the manner of the draw made it much more palatable. They now face a League Cup and league double against Aberdeen in the space of three days at Fir Park, as they seek to cement their status as top-six hopefuls and book their first semi-final appearance in six years.
“The spirit in the dressing room, I see it every day,” said captain Carl McHugh. “I see how we train and it gives you confidence going into games because you see how everyone is pushing each other to get into the starting XI. We have players who aren’t getting into the 18 who can contribute.
“We’ve had a great start but that’s all it is, a good start. But there’s a lot to be optimistic about.”