Ray McKinnon believes Hibs’ recent league blip cannot be blamed on jitters or their Scottish Cup distractions.
Instead, the Dundee United manager points to the competitive nature of the Championship, which, he says, unlike the tier above, is reaching a fascinating conclusion.
Try as they might, Hibs have been unable to create breathing space at the top of the league. That means tomorrow night’s televised clash at Tannadice between them and Dundee United, currently third, has the potential significance many wish Sunday’s Old Firm clash could boast.
Celtic’s 27-point lead at the top of the Premiership has prompted debate about the uncompetitive nature of Scotland’s top tier – at least at its summit. One newspaper recently calculated that Celtic’s points-per-game ratio of 2.93 is the highest since Hungary’s Ferencvaros won all 22 league games in 1931-32.
How McKinnon wishes leading Dundee United back to the top tier could prove so straightforward. Sadly, he has to take into account nine other teams perfectly capable of disrupting his side’s promotion plans. Unbeaten in all competitions at Tannadice, United have, however, lost five times on the road in the league.
But eight wins out of 12 at home have helped keep them in the hunt and means confidence is high ahead of tomorrow’s night clash with Hibs, who they have beaten at Tannadice already this season.
That, along with Hibs’ recent league stumbles is proof Neil Lennon’s side are beatable.
“It’s a tough league,” said McKinnon. “They [Hibs] have had to come back from being a goal down at Raith. St Mirren have beaten them. This is a tough league and we shouldn’t underestimate it. That’s the key. I don’t underestimate this league. That’s why we’re still in the championship [race].”
While United are indeed very much in contention, they could be even better placed. They are seven points behind Hibs, who have played a game more. But United could be exerting greater pressure on their rivals had they taken more advantage of Hibs’ recent stutter.
United, thoug, have also been misfiring, losing heavily to second-placed Falkirk last month and dropping two points at home against Morton, another team currently in a play-off spot, in their last league outing.
McKinnon is frustrated but stresses that nothing can be taken for granted in a league he knows so well having guided Raith Rovers to a play-off spot last season. He said: “It just shows you how tight this league is.
“Hibs have beaten Premiership teams but their run of form recently has not been that great. It’s good in that they’re top of the league, but it shows you how strong the league is. You can’t take anybody lightly. Every game is really, really difficult.
“Everybody gets their period in the season when they get blips. We have had our blip, hopefully. They [Hibs] have gone through a wee blip. That’s just part and parcel of league football. You see it in England. You see it all over the world. We’re happy to be where we are. If we get a victory, it’s game on. Everybody has their wee periods in the season where you are not at your best. We’re just delighted we are still in it.”
But United’s need for victory is clearly greater than it is for Hibs, who dismantled McKinnon’s side at Easter Road in January in their last meeting. “I just think we weren’t at our best that night and we were punished,” said McKinnon of the 3-0 defeat. “We were sloppy.”
Influential defender Lewis Toshney, who has been out with a hamstring strain since the defeat at Falkirk, returns for United.