FOLLOWING two defeats on the bounce and, with a derby match looming, Hibs know they need to get back to winning ways. A week which could help define their season, it will either go a long way to reinforcing the idea that this side is a more resilient upgrade from last season’s strugglers or end up shooting some serious holes in that theory.
“I have said before that a team is defined on how they react to adversity as well as how they react to winning,” says Hibs manager Pat Fenlon. He takes his squad to Perth this evening hoping to regain some equilibrium after the disappointing performance against Dundee and then a second successive defeat, by Aberdeen, on Saturday. “It is part of growing as a team, learning to deal with that disappointment – particularly on Saturday when we played really well but got nothing.”
It was an open secret that Fenlon was so disgusted with certain players’ perceived tolerance of defeat and the absence of the kind of winning attitude he wanted last term, that their future at the club was curtailed as a consequence. This time he believes that he has the right mettle in his squad. Far more used to the joy of winning since he pieced them together in the summer, they have not built up an immunity to the pain of dropping points. That gives him the belief that they will get back on track sooner rather than later.
“We knew the previous week that we didn’t deserve anything, but against Aberdeen we deserved to win,” Fenlon said. “We had the players in on Sunday morning and, although they were disappointed, we got the message across that we were encouraged and the performance was very, very good. You deal with the disappointment of not getting any points but you take the positives.”
Few inside Easter Road on Saturday will fathom how the home side finished the match pointless. But plaudits alone will not keep Hibs near the top of the table. Only a return to winning ways will do that. Succeeding in that goal, against St Johnstone this evening, is the first aim, the next will be extending their Scottish Cup involvement beyond Sunday. Having reached the final last term only to be thumped 5-1 by their city rivals, it is Hearts who again provide the opposition in a competition which has brought Hibs little joy and no silverware for over a century. But giving that matter too much thought would merely be a distraction, insists Fenlon.
“I’m not worried about it,” he added. “It is not relevant to me right now. St Johnstone is a bigger game for us. It is a league game and we want to make sure we get the points. It is a difficult venue and we have to be focused on this match. We have not spoken a single word about another game and that is the honest answer. The only game in our minds is St Johnstone.
“The SPL is the bread and butter and we have to make sure we respond from losing a couple of games back-to-back. We’ve said before that our aim is to take the club from where it has been in recent seasons into the top six. We are there at the moment and we need to stay there. There have been a lot of topsy-turvy results and there are not a lot of points between the teams, and that reflects the ability of the squad. There is not much of a difference at all. [McDiarmid Park] is a difficult place to win football matches and they are a decent side, with a lot of decent players coming off a decent result at the weekend. So, it’s as big a challenge as we’ve faced.”
Hibs will face it without James McPake, Tim Clancy and Gary Deegan. All three remain sidelined and all three are major doubts for the weekend as well, with McPake targeting the Inverness Caledonian Thistle match next weekend and the other two unlikely to be back for another two or three weeks, according to their manager.
“We’re short of numbers, particularly defensively, but Lewis [Stevenson] has done well at left back and Ryan [McGivern] has played at Championship level so it’s not as if we’re throwing in kids to play,” added Fenlon.
Stevenson has had to wait his turn to get back into the team after sustaining a broken toe early in the campaign. The fact he has found it so hard to break back in is testament to how well the club is doing. “Even now, I am filling in at left-back because of injuries,” says the 24-year-old, who has been in and out the team as a parade of managers have come and gone. “But I can’t complain. We have had times before with squads of 30, whereas this year we have about 20. It’s a smaller squad but it’s a stronger one.
“This is a massive week and it was a bad time to get two defeats on the trot but we have bounced back before. If there is any danger that this is going to be a rut then we need to get out of it. Our focus is on St Johnstone. If we get a good result there, then Sunday should take care of itself.”