BEN WILLIAMS believes Hibernian must set their sights higher than just a top-six finish this season and should be capable of being runners-up in the title race for the first time in almost 40 years.
The Easter Road club have been mediocre top-flight performers for the last three seasons, finishing tenth, 11th and seventh in the Scottish Premier League.
After a torrid start to the campaign, which included their crushing 9-0 aggregate Europa League exit against Malmo, Hibs have found a degree of consistency in recent weeks. On Monday night, an inspired display by goalkeeper Williams helped them defeat Partick Thistle 1-0 at Firhill to climb to fifth place in the Scottish Premiership.
It leaves them five points behind second-placed Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Williams feels he is part of a squad which can be the best of the rest behind champions Celtic this season. Hibs have not filled the runners-up spot since 1974-75 when they split the Old Firm under Eddie Turnbull’s guidance.
“A lot of people are taking the view that we are a top-six club this season but I think that’s the minimum target we should go for,” said Williams.
“We should push for the top four in the first instance and then go on to assert ourselves as the league goes on. We started well last season and then couldn’t keep it going after the winter break.
“Some people say we’ve been slow starters this season, but in comparison to last term we are only one point worse off after the first nine league games. So it’s important we build up and take the football cliché of one game at a time.
“We have quality and experience in our squad. We have proven footballers and talented kids. We should be challenging to be best of the rest. Celtic will probably run away with the title, but it’s important we stay on their coat-tails and push on in the league.”
Williams played down his own contribution to the victory over Thistle. The 31-year-old Mancunian, who had been at fault in Hibs’ 3-0 defeat at Inverness the previous week, rushed off his line to make a crucial save from Thistle striker Kris Doolan when the scoreline was still blank and then pulled off a stunning double stop to deny Christie Elliott and Ross Forbes in the closing moments as Pat Fenlon’s side held on to the 1-0 lead provided by Liam Craig’s goal.
“It was important to bounce back from a poor performance in Inverness,” said Williams. “It keeps us tucked in behind the pack as we go into the international break. It was a bit of a smash and grab and there’s a lot for us to work on.
“It was a case of right place, right time for me. It was the perfect hat-trick of saves really, save with hand, save with my feet and save with my face! I’ll take that any day if it means we get the points and a win.
“We didn’t play anywhere near our best against Thistle but not playing well and winning is not a bad habit to have. It shows you that when we do click and impose ourselves on games, then we will do well.”
Midfielder Craig scored his sixth goal of the season at Firhill, taking the former St Johnstone man clear at the top of Hibs’ scoring chart. The 26-year-old has impressed Williams since his summer arrival at the club.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Liam gets well into double figures with goals this season,” said Williams. “He always stays behind at training to work on free kicks and penalties. Sometimes he’s there so long we need to tell him to go home or we’d be there until it’s dark. He works incredibly hard, so whatever he gets in games is deserved.
“He was wearing his new silver boots on Monday night and it was some goal he scored. He said the boots had arrived by courier about five minutes before he set off from home. His missus looked at them and thought they were a bit special, so he decided he better do something special with them!
“It was a composed finish with his supposedly weaker right foot, his pitching wedge if you like, but he controlled it really well. We are going to need goals from the midfield players this season and Liam will definitely chip in with his share.
“After losing Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle at the end of last season, we are probably missing around 30 goals from the squad.
“That’s a large amount to make up but along with Liam, we’ve got Paul Heffernan, James Collins and Rowan Vine who will all score goals. They work hard and the goals will come from them as well.”