CONRAD BALATONI believes the Scottish Premiership can ill afford to lose Hibernian from its ranks. He even does his best to look as if he hopes they stay up – just so long as it’s not at the expense of his own Partick Thistle side.
“I don’t really take great pleasure from the position Hibs are in,” says the central defender who began his career at Hearts and who remains close friends with many of the Tynecastle club’s current squad.
“I’m a Thistle fan now, not a Hearts fan,” he adds with a grin. “Yes, it would be great for the Championship next season if Hearts, Rangers, Hibs and possibly Dunfermline were all in it.
“But, if Hibs were to go down, it would be a great loss for the Premiership. It’s already without Rangers. Hearts and Hibs are two more massive clubs and, if all of them were not there, you would wonder where you are going to get some good crowds from next season.”
Balatoni’s sole focus this afternoon, however, will be Thistle’s bid to preserve their own Premiership status. Their match against free-falling Hibs at Easter Road is regarded by many as the most pivotal yet in what is still a five-team scrap to avoid finishing 11th in the top-flight table and facing a play-off.
“It is a massive game and, if we win, then we can maybe guarantee our safety against Hearts next Wednesday, depending on other results,” adds Balatoni
“If we beat Hibs, it will be a big step to hopefully securing our place in the league for next season. If Hibs lose, well, they are a massive club and maybe there is still enough time for them to avoid relegation but they are on a bad run of form and you never know.
“Am I surprised Hibs have been dragged into it? Yes and no. You look at the players they have got and you wonder how they can be in this situation. You would have thought getting a new manager in would have given the place a lift.
“If you look at their wage budget, then they should probably be challenging in the top six. They spent £200,000 on James Collins and, if teams are spending like that, you don’t expect them to be near the bottom. But the league table doesn’t lie. If Hibs go down, then it is job done for us because it would mean we are safe.
“I don’t know what is going on in their dressing room though as I am only looking from the outside. But they have got quality in their squad and they can still hurt teams so we have got to be aware of that. Obviously, they are not on a great run of form but then the boys know a bad run of form has got to come to an end. Hopefully, it won’t be against us. We’ve been working hard in the last few games and hopefully our quality can come through and take the three points.”
Thistle have collected five points from their last four games to draw level with Hibs in the congested relegation play-off zone and Balatoni feels a good start to the match may be the key to success today.
“If we can get an early goal then it could settle down a lot of our nerves because it is a massive game,” he added.
“If we are steady at the back and don’t concede anything in the first 15 minutes, maybe the home crowd will get on top of Hibs. Maybe we can force them into a few mistakes and capitalise on that. But I think they will be going at it tooth and nail from the start which is something we have to be aware of. We need to work hard like we do in every game and hopefully we can continue our good bit of form from the last couple of games.”
Balatoni reckons his individual level of performance has improved since Thistle signed veteran defender Lee Mair from St Mirren in the January transfer window.
“My relationship with Lee at the back has been good,” said Balatoni. “He is older, wiser and very experienced. It has helped me and made me come on a tonne. He talks me through the games and having an older head next to me is something I’ve not had since the manager Alan Archibald was still playing. I am learning all the time from Lee and I can’t speak highly enough of him.”