Pat Fenlon has admitted it will be a massive disappointment to him if Hibernian fail to reach the top six.
With two games to go – at home to Inverness tomorrow and then away to Celtic next weekend – the Easter Road club are one of four teams chasing a single remaining slot in the upper half of the SPL table.
When they were in second place earlier in the season, Hibs appeared sure to finish in the top six. But Fenlon, who has always insisted that rebuilding the club is a longer-term task, said he had never presumed they had done enough to make the cut.
“I would have never thought a few months ago that we had it sorted out,” he said yesterday. “But we’ve given ourselves a chance, and that’s the key. Saturday’s a big game, a massive game for us.
“The league has been tight. Over the last two or three weeks, one or two teams have got themselves into it, but there’s still three or four that can still get there: I think that shows you how tight it is.
“We said at the start that we want to be in it. For me, personally, if we’re not in it, I’ll be very, very disappointed. It’s up to other people then to judge whether we’ve made progress – I have my own opinions on that.
“But the goal was to get into that [top six]. And that’s still the goal. We want to make sure, over the next two games, that we give ourselves every opportunity to do that. We’ve got a home game first, and I think it’s really important that we pick up three points. But by no means is it going to be easy, because we’re playing a really decent team.
“But we’ve come down to the last couple of games to give ourselves a chance. If you compare that to last year, that sort of answers the question [as to whether progress has been made].”
After the Edinburgh derby ended goalless earlier this month, Fenlon complained that poor decisions by officials had cost his club four points in two games. Leigh Griffiths was denied a goal against Hearts even though his direct free-kick had clearly crossed the line, and, against Dundee United, a penalty was awarded despite Ryan McGivern’s offence having apparently taken place outside the box. But the Irishman insisted he would not dwell on those incidents, and suggested there could still be a few twists over the coming two weekends before the identity of the clubs in the top half was determined.
“As the song says, you can’t look back in anger. You just have to get on with it, take it on the chin at times and bite your lip.
“That’s been difficult, but hopefully it doesn’t come down to that. We want to make sure we get into it, and no better way than if we get three points on Saturday.
“Looking at the games, there’s a lot to play for. A few months ago, people talked about the league not being as good without Rangers, but all this is still going on. Celtic are out of sight, but everything else is still up in the air and every game has some meaning to it.
“There’s even the fact that if Dundee can pick up a couple of wins they would see themselves as maybe getting out of it. So there’s a lot to play for.”
Reflecting on the international window which saw many of his players away on representative duty, Fenlon insisted that the toughness of Scotland’s World Cup qualifying group should be taken into account before people criticised the national team too severely. And he suggested that no-one should presume his own country was necessarily faring significantly better than Gordon Strachan’s team.
“First of all, I think our group is not as tough as Scotland’s. I’ve seen all the Irish games and, outside of Germany, there’s probably very little between ourselves, Austria and Sweden. The Faroes and Kazakhstan are outside it, but it’s very tight between that three. In Scotland’s group, there are some really good sides.
“There’s big expectations in Scotland as well, which doesn’t help. I think the manager needs to be given time. You’re probably the lowest it can be and it can only go forward. That just takes time. The manager needs a bit of time to see what he has, player-wise, because there are some good Scottish players as well at under-age level. Time is really important.”
Fenlon was still awaiting the return of midfielder Jorge Claros from international duty, but, provided the Honduran is suitably rested, he will be in consideration for tomorrow’s game. Ryan McGivern, Tim Clancy and Kevin Thomson should also be in the squad, while Paul Hanlon could return after injury for the Celtic game. Alan Maybury is suspended for the Inverness match.
One player who will definitely take his place in Fenlon’s team tomorrow is goalkeeper Ben Williams, who was this week named the Hibs supporters’ player of the season. “People scoring goals will also stand out, but Ben has contributed greatly to the team over the season,” Fenlon added. “His work rate and attitude is different class. He’s great to have around for the younger players, so he thoroughly deserves it.
“There’s been a lot of chopping and changing with goalkeepers at Hibs over a period of time. It’s really important that you have stability in that area and confidence for your back four, and to have someone like Ben behind them helps. He’s a very, very good goalkeeper.”