THE only remaining unbeaten home record in the SPL goes on the line this afternoon when Aberdeen visit Easter Road, and indications are it could be one of the most significant games of the season so far. Both Hibernian and their visitors lost last week, so know that a further defeat today could see them slip back into the chasing pack.
Any sort of win for Craig Brown’s team will see them go second, ahead of Hibs on goal difference. A home win, on the other hand, will keep Hibs at least four points clear in second place – and would also take them back to the top of the table, should Celtic fail to beat Caley Thistle.
With five wins and two draws so far on their own ground, Hibs are enjoying a run of form which is a vast improvement on last season, when they won only two league games at Easter Road. They were stunned by Dundee at Dens Park last week, losing 3-1 to the bottom club, but centre-half Paul Hanlon thinks they can ensure the setback is only temporary.
“We never played to our capabilities against Dundee, and if you don’t play well enough in this league you’re going to get beaten no matter who you’re playing,” he said. “We weren’t getting carried away through winning games, but we can use the Dundee result as a reminder that you need to be on top of your game every week.
“It was a general thing – a lot of our players didn’t turn up and didn’t play to their full ability. It was just one of those days, I suppose.
“Last year our home form was the most disappointing thing about the whole season, so to be unbeaten so far this season is great and we’re desperate to keep it going. It’s something to be proud of and we’re not going to let it go easily.”
Having grown up as a Hibs fan, Hanlon found that home form doubly disappointing, but this season he is finding it easier to hold his head up in the company of his fellow-supporters. “It’s a big difference from last year, when it was just disappointment after disappointment,” he continued. “Speaking to fans it was disappointing for them and you just had to agree with them at the time.
“You’re trying your hardest to win games and it wasn’t happening last year. But now it’s more upbeat. We’re far from the finished article, but it’s good to be winning games, especially at home in front of plenty of Hibs fans.”
The main reason Hibs have been winning games is the league’s top-scorer Leigh Griffiths, a fact acknowledged by Aberdeen striker Rory Fallon.
Fallon still believes Aberdeen can challenge Celtic for the title and victory at Easter Road today can be achieved by stopping Griffiths, who has found the net 13 times in the SPL this term.
Fallon believes the on-loan Wolves striker’s goals are the main reason for Hibs’ lofty position.
“I think they’re doing well, but when they came here I thought they struggled,” he said of Aberdeen’s 2-1 win at Pittodrie in September. “I feel their strikers are dragging their team along. Griffiths, if we stop him, they won’t score. He’s the one getting all the goals.
“I believe that we’re a better team than them. Obviously we’ll have to prove that on the day.”
Victory at Easter Road would take the Dons to second in the SPL, separated from their hosts by goal difference, but Fallon’s sights are set even higher as his side aim to respond from the 2-0 loss to leaders Celtic.
“Some people are happy for Celtic to go off and win it, but I’m one of those guys that believes we can win it,” the New Zealand forward said. “If people believe Celtic are going to win it, they’re going to win it. If we don’t believe we can do well and push up higher, then what’s the point of even playing?
“I really don’t see the point in people just giving Celtic the title already. That’s not how I work. I work through belief and having faith.
“Celtic have probably got the biggest squad, but we’ve got the strongest squad after them.”
Aberdeen manager Brown praised Fallon for his “infectious enthusiasm” but prefers a different approach publicly.
“Under-play your hand is the way to do it,” Brown said.
“I’m not going to publicly say what we’re going to do to Hibs, beat them and finish above them – all that does is motivate them.
“All that does is give Pat Fenlon his team talk: ‘listen to what he’s saying’.
“Everyone acknowledges Griffiths is the leading scorer in this league, he scores freely, all kind of goals.
“There’s no doubting that Griffiths is the man that has been influential in getting Hibs to where they are.
“Griffiths is their version of Niall McGinn. McGinn missed five games this season, so you don’t know what tally he might have had.”
McGinn has netted eight times this season and is likely to continue up front today.
Fallon made his first appearance since August against Celtic last weekend after a problematic stomach injury was finally resolved by treatment from a specialist.
The 30-year-old said: “I’ve had this since the World Cup. No-one knew what is was.
“I tore my abdominal muscles and they healed back and got a grip of my nerve. I’m glad to be getting rid of it. I’m just happy to be back.”