AFTER humiliation was narrowly avoided at Hampden on Saturday, Hibernian’s manager and captain spoke as one.
The players need to work hard in training, and perform well in their remaining league matches, if they want to be involved in next month’s Scottish Cup final against Celtic.
“We have five games before then and I can tell you this – everyone will be working very hard in training between now and then,” is how skipper James McPake put it in the wake of his team’s 4-3 win over Falkirk. “There are no guaranteed starters after that performance.”
Manager Pat Fenlon was equally clear. “It’s up to the players,” he said. “If they want to be involved in the cup final then they have to go and play well.
“We’ve been disappointed with our form the last couple of months. We have spoken about that, and now we have five big league games to try to put it right.”
It is wholly understandable that the two men should make those statements. If ever a squad needed a renewed sense of urgency, it is this Hibs one, who were only able to rouse themselves after their First Division opponents had raced into a three-goal lead.
But there are two related problems that Fenlon must somehow deal with before he names his 16 men for the 26 May showdown – problems that will not disappear merely because he tells them to show some enthusiasm in training at East Mains. One is that there is no real in-depth competition for places. The other is that the malaise at Hibs may be too deep-seated to be dealt with merely by giving the players a bit of a talking-to.
McPake may say there are “no guaranteed starters”, but you can bet your life that Fenlon has already pencilled in most of his team for the final. Fitness permitting, the captain himself has to be one of the certainties, third in importance only behind goalkeeper Ben Williams and top scorer Leigh Griffiths.
Even after losing three goals on Saturday, Williams is absolutely key to Hibs’ hopes of beating Celtic. If he fails to do his job at one end, it does not matter how well Griffiths plays at the other: Hibs will be dead and buried. And if the game ends in a penalty shoot-out, the goalkeeper has such an excellent record in saving spot-kicks this season that Hibs would become favourites to win it.
However, presuming Hibs do not actually play for the goalless draw, they will look to Griffiths to create something extraordinary, as he did for the winning goal on Saturday. In what could well be his last game for the club, he is sure to throw every ounce of energy into winning the trophy.
One question Fenlon will need to answer is whether he should deploy Griffiths on his own in a 4-5-1 or field Eoin Doyle alongside him from the start. The manager has admitted that he had got elements of his planning wrong against Falkirk, and he brought Doyle on in place of Paul Cairney for Saturday’s second half.
But being adventurous when you are 3-0 down and your job is at stake is a given. Faced with the threat of Celtic, Fenlon is likely to revert to his usual caution and play Griffiths as a sole striker, urging wide midfielder Alex Harris to get up in support of him as much as possible,
Harris, scorer of Hibs’ first goal three days ago, should also be guaranteed a start. Against Celtic in the league a week earlier he was the only midfielder with the confidence to take the game to the champions, and in the final will surely not be overawed by the occasion.
While those four players should be on the team on merit, the same cannot be said of several others who, even so, look certain to start. McPake’s back-four colleagues Tim Clancy, Ryan McGivern and Paul Hanlon have all been below their best recently – understandably so in the case of Hanlon, who is not long back from injury – but it would be a gamble to omit any of them.
The one option Fenlon could consider is dropping Hanlon and partnering McGivern and McPake at centre-half. But who then plays at left-back? Lewis Stevenson has done so, but the likelihood is that the present back four will be given the post-split games to play together and, Fenlon hopes, rediscover their best form.
In other words, the only serious competition for places is in midfield. Scott Robertson had a shocker on Saturday and lasted half an hour before giving way to Danny Handling, and Kevin Thomson – replaced by Tom Taiwo 20 minutes into the second half – was not a whole lot better. Nor was Cairney.
Besides Stevenson, an unused sub on Saturday, Fenlon can call on David Wotherspoon and Gary Deegan. But those two have suffered from the same indifferent form that has afflicted their team-mates. So bringing them in would also be a risk.
Indeed, when you have so many players out of sorts, tinkering with the team is unlikely to be the answer to the problem. Somehow. over the next six weeks, Fenlon has to achieve an across-the-board improvement in his squad. And that, given the indolence some have shown, could be a tougher task than actually winning the cup.