IT is doubtful that when Ryan McGivern encountered a youth player called Billy McKay during a spell on loan with Leicester City four years ago, the Northern Ireland internationalist thought he could have been glimpsing his country’s next David Healy.
Yet, the Hibs defender now believes that is the path on which McKay’s goalscoring exploits with Inverness could eventually set him. The pair have appeared in the recent selections of Michael O’Neill and today could appear in opposition at the Caledonian Stadium as the Easter Road men face the Premiership leaders in the sternest examination of their recent revival.
“Billy has been fantastic since moving to Inverness and every week when you look at the scores coming in you’re almost guaranteed he’ll be on the scoresheet – I just hope that won’t be the case this week,” the 23-year-old said of a striker one year his senior who has already bagged seven goals this term.
“I played in a few under-21 games with him and he was in the last couple of senior (Northern Ireland) squads. He took a chance by moving to Scotland and he’s scored an awful lot of goals in the last two seasons and he’s been a big player for Inverness.
“The Northern Ireland manager has seen that and given him his chance and he’s rightly been in the last couple of squads. He’s not the biggest of lads but he knows where the net is and he’s a natural finisher which his record indicates. I’ve played with a lot of good natural finishers with Northern Ireland. If you look at David Healy he’s probably a similar kind of player, not the biggest in size and stature but he knows where the net is and his goal record [of 36 goals in 95 games] speaks for itself at international level.
“You could probably compare the two and in the long term Billy could possibly fill that role. If he keeps going the way he’s going and scoring goals at the level he is then, as he’s still young, then there’s no reason why he can’t because he’s only going to get better. He’s their talisman and a big factor in their success.
“Similar to Leigh Griffiths for us last season, he can pop up out of nowhere and score crucial goals. But he’s not the only player who can hurt us – they’ve got [Aaron] Doran and [Richie] Foran in the middle who are big players as well.”
It has been Hibs’ ability to cope without big players that has encouraged McGivern to believe that Hibs can be the team people thought they could be until the lost their first four games of the campaign. He has had to settle for a place on the bench, as has captain James McPake, while such as Alex Harris, Owain Tudor-Jones, Paul Cairney and Tim Clancy have all been sidelined recently.
“I’ve only been here for two seasons but last year we had a good squad although if we picked up one or two injuries we didn’t have the depth. If you look at the bench this season and those who are injured then I feel we’ve got a lot of depth which you need to be successful through a long season.”
The club’s six-game unbeaten run is notable for the fact the last three of these matches were wins. It is a sequence that has not only eased the pressure on Pat Fenlon but acted as justification of his, oft-mocked, claims that he had assembled a group of players capable of coming good.
“There is a real buzz about the place, training has been good… but I said that earlier in the season,” Fenlon said. “We’re starting to get a lot of bodies back so there’s a lot of competition for places now. We have got a real good squad and we’re looking forward to playing all the time now. That’s the key, looking forward to playing.
“In the first few [league] games there wasn’t much in them... they could have gone either way. We have slowly progressed since then.
“That’s a culmination of certain players finding form, competition for places and decent partnerships forming all over the pitch. It’s pleasing when you know they are working hard and you’re a result away from starting a run. We’ve done that and we want to maintain that if we can.”
To do so today, Fenlon accepts his team will have to prosper in a fixture “as tough as anywhere at this stage”.
“Terry [Butcher] has done an unbelievable job when you look around at what they have,” the Hibs manager said. “They have a tremendous team spirit and they have also got some good players. They work to a real good system that makes them hard to play against but they score plenty goals as well. We know we’re going to have to play really well to get something up there.”
Butcher returned the compliment by praising Fenlon’s recovery from such an awful start to the season at Easter Road. He said he had taken predictions of the Dubliner’s downfall at that juncture with a pinch of salt, having been being subjected to similar “guff” last year.
“They have settled well at Hibs now and you can see that. Now they have continuity of selection, they have players who feel freer and more comfortable with their team-mates, and they are getting results because of that,” he said.