DERBIES are supposed to be all-consuming. To Hibernian, Sunday’s assignment across in Gorgie might be all of a nuisance. Pat Fenlon’s side are marking time until the Scottish Cup final meeting with Celtic in a fortnight.
Bottom-six league encounters, even those pitting them against their bitter adversaries, present only the problem of potential injuries to key players.
Former Hibs manager John Collins accepts then that, when it comes to the capital sides’ meeting at Tynecastle in two days, there is a sound argument for leaving out the player who is more key to his old club’s cup final cause than any other: Leigh Griffiths, PFA Scotland’s Young Player of the Year, and scorer of 27 goals this season.
“I think he [Fenlon] will be tempted because Griffiths is such an important player for Hibs,” said Collins. “If he was to miss the cup final then you could just wave goodbye to Hibs having any chance of winning the trophy. He’s so important that the manager must be thinking about that. It’s an interesting one. If you don’t play him you won’t win the derby and you want to win that, so I think he’ll play. He’s had an unbelievable season.”
Griffiths’ extended loan period with the Easter Road club from parent club Wolverhampton Wanderers is scheduled to conclude with the Hampden decider against Celtic on 26 May. But Wolves’ relegation to England’s third tier, and the subsequent sacking of manager Dean Saunders, hardly make the prospect of swapping his boyhood club for a side with whom he never really settled any more enticing. Some players appear made for certain clubs, and Collins agrees Griffiths and Hibs have been such a pairing.
“Most football players have ambition and everybody wants to get to the top of their tree and earn as much money as they can in their careers, but Hibs seem to be a good fit for him,” he said. “He’s a supporter, he’s from the area. He’s the kingpin isn’t he? The team and the club revolve around him. Would he be allowed to do that at another club? Probably not. There’s no doubt that he’s a finisher. He scores good goals and I have to say that Hibs haven’t created a lot of goals for him. He creates a lot of goals for himself and I wouldn’t like to see where they would be without him. He’s happy at Hibs, isn’t he? It sounds like it.”
Even with Griffiths, though, Hibs have ended up precisely where they wanted to avoid in the Scottish Premier League. Fenlon himself has declared his team’s championship form to be substandard. There is no dispute on that front from Collins, unsurprisingly.
“It’s a tough job,” the 45-year-old said. “He’s brought in a lot of loan players but it’s been a disappointing season for Hibs – they’re in the bottom half of the league with Hearts. They’re big clubs with big supports and they should be in the top half. From the league perspective they should be disappointed, but they’ve got to the cup final, so they can finish the season on a high. Every manager, coach, player and supporter wants to get to Hampden. It’s a great way to end the season, so that’s a terrific achievement – and they beat SPL teams to get there, so their cup form has been outstanding. The league form has been very poor, the last three or four months.”
Against such a backdrop, Collins doesn’t subscribe to the view that this weekend’s eighth versus tenth capital confrontation is meaningless for Hibs, or a game they could do without as it begins an eight day, three-game period with which they will complete their league commitments. “As a manager you want big games,” he said. “Big games motivate players and there’ll be a full house. It’s the smaller games with half-empty stadiums that are the worrying ones for the manager. You’ve always got to look forward to the derby.”