HIBERNIAN manager Pat Fenlon hopes Sunday’s pride-restoring Scottish Cup derby triumph over Hearts could help boost his chances of retaining the services of top scorer Leigh Griffiths, while also attracting other new faces to the club.
Griffiths is one of three on-loan players whose contracts expire next month, with work on extensions to those deals on-going at boardroom level ahead of the January transfer window.
Although Griffiths’ 13 goals so far this term would render his return to Wolves in the New Year a huge blow should it happen, the performances of Honduran midfielder Jorge Claros and Manchester City and Northern Ireland defender Ryan McGivern mean their departures would be as significant a setback to the Easter Road side. With Wolves said to be seeking a transfer fee for Griffiths, it remains to be seen whether chairman Rod Petrie can deliver on a longer deal for the boyhood Hibs supporter. However, Fenlon is hopeful, on top of their current record of eight wins from 16 SPL outings, that progress to the next round of the cup, where they will host either Aberdeen or Motherwell, can only support attempts to enhance the squad if and when required. He said: “Everything helps in relation to attracting players, whether it’s Leigh or somebody else. Like we’ve said previously, we’ve got a fantastic stadium and great training facilities. We don’t have loads of money to throw at players, but we have got good attributes that we can attract players with. And winning football matches is the biggest attribute of them all.”
Griffiths played a restricted role in Sunday’s 1-0 win, being denied the opportunity to showcase the predatory instincts that helped to earn him his first full Scotland cap last month before leaving the field on a stretcher with an ankle injury in the 54th minute. The success was more a victory for the new-found defensive solidity Hibs have displayed this season and makeshift full-back Lewis Stevenson was singled out for special praise by Fenlon for being the embodiment of his side’s unflinching approach. He added: “I thought the back four were excellent and I thought that Lewis at left-back was excellent for us. He has not been in the team and he is a central midfielder or a left-sided midfielder, and he’s gone in at left-back in the last few games and has been excellent. He epitomises what we want to be here. We are not the biggest team but there were not many headers lost. Lewis is only a little lad, like myself, and he was up against some big boys, and he showed great commitment.”
Stevenson was the most senior Hibs player on the pitch, in terms of appearances and length of service, and he admitted that ending the three-and-a-half year wait for a derby win had come as a massive relief. “It’s great to have a derby win to talk about, but the overwhelming feeling is relief, really,” he said. “There’s a few of us who have been at Hibs for a while and wins against Hearts have not come along all that often, so it’s nice to have one to celebrate.
“It was a horrible game to play in and it wasn’t a good game to watch either, I’d imagine, but it will be remembered for us winning our first derby for ages. It’s funny that we got the win despite not playing well at all, because against Aberdeen we played really well and lost 1-0.
Hibs may get a chance to host Aberdeen again in the next round, if Craig Brown’s side can overcome Motherwell at Fir Park in their replay next Tuesday, but with the fifth round matches not until the first weekend in February, Stevenson and his team-mates will be looking forward to trying to consolidate their SPL position, especially with morale so high after the derby success.
“This result gives us great confidence for the league,” added Stevenson. “It’s the biggest crowd (17,052) we’ve played in front of at Easter Road for a while too. Hopefully it will bring the fans back here. It wasn’t the best of games, but the atmosphere was brilliant throughout. It was special at the end. We owed the fans that kind of result and that kind of celebration, and even though it’s a lucky goal it was still a win against Hearts.”
Stevenson was also delighted for Fenlon, whose delight at the end was clear to see as he took to the pitch to receive a standing ovation from supporters he has finally won round after a difficult first six months in charge. “This season the fans have been right behind the manager,” noted Stevenson. “They’ve backed what he’s doing. We have tried to play football in the right way, although that went out the window against Hearts and it was a bit of a battle instead. But it was the manager’s first win over Hearts and that’s always a good thing for a Hibs manager.
“The fans seem a lot more positive this season. When we lost 1-0 to Aberdeen recently we played well and they clapped and cheered us off the pitch after getting beaten. That’s unheard of at Easter Road. In the past we’ve won games and still been booed off the pitch. Even years before, when we were getting bigger crowds there was still a negative atmosphere in the stadium. But they are behind the manager and behind the players and they’ve given the team great support this season.
“We’ve responded to that by showing great form, especially in the league at home. So it’s a good place to be right now, but we want to build on that and the way to do that is by beating Inverness on Saturday.” Stevenson has suffered, sometimes on the sidelines due to injury, as Hearts put together their 12-game unbeaten derby run, and now that it’s over he is hoping Hibs can now go on a similar run, with the next meeting at Tynecastle on 3 January. “It’s only one game. But I’d love to go on a run against Hearts like they did against us,” he said. “Why can’t we? We can play a lot better than we did today and if we can play that bad and still win then it shows we now have the mentality to grind out results.”
With the holders out the Scottish Cup and Hibs landing a home draw in the next round, albeit a difficult one, Stevenson believes his side could challenge for the elusive silverware. Asked if this could be their year, Stevenson replied: “Yes. We have a smaller squad than in the past but it’s a stronger squad. There’s great competition for places this season too. We’ve got boys out injured. I’m only filling in at left-back because James McPake and Tim Clancy are still to come back from injury. There’s options.”