NEVER mind the state of the ground, the size of the crowd or the quality of the opposition. Hibernian’s league match at Cowdenbeath this afternoon is arguably far more important than their recent encounters with Hearts and Dundee United, or even their win at Ibrox at the end of September.
Because if Hibs really have made the lasting improvement that manager Alan Stubbs sees in them, they must show it in unglamorous surroundings such as Central Park. Beating Rangers away proved they could raise their game for the big occasion, as did their League Cup tie against Dundee United, which they lost on penalties. And the way in which Hibs played in their draw with Hearts proved they have far more resilience than some of the soft-centred teams to have come out of Easter Road in recent years.
But those improved performances, no matter how laudable, only produced a defeat, a draw and a single win. And that win only earned three points – no more than a victory in Fife today will produce.
Hibs have not lost in the Championship since they went to Queen of the South in September, and they are unbeaten in their five league games since. But those games included three draws, all, incidentally, at home. Yes, they have climbed into the play-off places, but in order to consolidate their position there, never mind make up lost ground on the leaders, they have to start winning the mundane games.
“I think we’ve got a great squad on paper,” was how centre-half Liam Fontaine analysed the situation. “We’re going to have to go out there and put the points on the board.
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“The gaffer has got strong belief in us and we’ve got that belief in ourselves. That’s what he’s trying to instil in the squad – just have this belief in each other. I do believe we’re starting to see it and I definitely feel it from being in the changing room.
“The character has changed from early on in the season. At the end of the Dundee United game, after we lost the shootout, the fans were up on their feet cheering at the end of the cup game, and it’s a great feeling as a player to know that they’re with you as well. It’s important that they’re with us and we’re really feeling it.
“It was disappointing to lose it, but once it goes to penalties it’s unlucky. We’ve moved on from that and we’ve got to get back on to the pitch and win again.
“I think there has been a massive improvement. As a squad we’ve become more tight-knit from top to bottom, including people off the pitch. It’s starting to really tighten up and I think you’re starting to see that on the pitch in how we play and always help each other.”
As one of Stubbs’s close-season signings, Fontaine was aware that it could take a while for the side to settle into a consistent style of play. He is convinced they have done so now, and believes that the key to maintaining that consistency is to stay calm and, in the words of the old cliche, look no further ahead than the next match.
“I think it’s just timing. With the gaffer bringing in players, like anything that needs time to gel and bond. You’re starting to see the results of it. Obviously the unbeaten run was good, but now we need to start [winning] three points, three points and continue that.
“All our focus is on Saturday’s game, and if we go there and don’t perform and get beat, there’s no point in focusing on the next few games. That’s how you build a run: you focus on one game, win it, next one, win it, next one, win it or don’t get beaten. If we’re going to drop points it has to be a draw and not a loss.”
Better draw than lose, of course, but at present Hibs are fourth on goal difference only. If they win today and then at home to third-placed Queen of the South next week, they are likely to move up a place, and that would represent another modest but significant step forward.
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