Ryan McGivern admits he can’t get the thought of a Cup final out of his mind. But, he insisted, walking out at Hampden on the last day of the season comes way down his list of priorities, at least for the time being.
While just 90 minutes separate Hibs from their second successive William Hill Scottish Cup final, the Northern Ireland star claimed so tight is the race for a place in the SPL’s top six that each of the Easter Road outfit’s four games before the “split” will be a Cup final.
It may be one of the oldest cliches in football but although Pat Fenlon’s side currently occupy sixth place, they are far from assured of finishing in the top half of the table, McGivern and his team-mates well aware the margin for error is practically non-existent.
Hibs have four matches, 12 points to play for, before their fate will be decided, either the chance to battle it out for a place in Europe or to end up playing the also-rans.
The prospect of a Cup semi-final against First Division Falkirk does, of course, provide an appealing distraction but as far as McGivern is concerned events between now and that showdown at Hampden on April 13 are for the time being of even greater significance.
One game at a time is another of the game’s adages and, McGivern insisted, that makes Sunday’s derby with Hearts the most important match of all, one in which yet another well-worn phrase will undoubtedly be trotted out, that in such fixtures the form book “goes out the window.”
As always, both sets of fans will approach kick-off with their emotions in turmoil, that heady sense of anticipation tempered with a hint of apprehension, no-one quite sure of who will win the day or whether it will be settled by a moment of magic or through a mind-numbing blunder.
McGivern, though, believes he, his team-mates and their fans are entitled to approach the third, and possibly the final derby of the season, in confident mood, claiming Fenlon’s stars, after an indifferent spell, are once again approaching the sort of form which saw them soar, albeit it briefly, to the very top of the pile.
Hibs’ resurgence, he insisted, was confirmed by the performance produced at Rugby Park on Sunday, the Capital club side-stepping a potentially tricky clash to record their third Cup win against SPL opposition having already knocked holders Hearts and Aberdeen out of the competition.
And the on-loan Manchester City defender believes the white-hot atmosphere of a derby is just what he and his team-mates need following the euphoria of that 4-2 win. He said: “Sunday is another massive game but our performances in the last few games has been good.
“We got a great result at Kilmarnock and the boys are full of confidence. Sometimes after such a game you can suffer a wee dip but regardless of who we might have been playing this weekend, there’s a real buzz about the place.
“Since that disappointing performance at home to St Johnstone we have picked up a lot, the game at Kilmarnock gave us the chance to go back to Hampden and we took it.
“But now it is the business end of the season and it’s great every game we are going to play will mean something. We have four games – starting on Sunday – before the split and each of them is like a Cup final. We know what we have to do. We want the three points on Sunday to keep us in the mix for the top six.
“It is so tight every point is crucial. Other than Celtic, nothing has really been settled, everyone is still in it from second top down to second bottom. We’ve got two games at home, two away so the matches at Easter Road are particularly vital.”
McGivern agrees that Hibs possibly have the toughest run-in of any side presently in the top six, the derby followed by games against three teams above them in the table, Motherwell, Inverness Caley and champions Celtic but, he claimed, there’s nothing to fear.
He said: “We are unbeaten in the derbies so far this season, we went to Motherwell earlier in the season, put in a great performance and got a great result while we’ve taken four points from our games with Celtic. As I have said, it is all very tight, and if we have to go to Glasgow for the last game before the split and get a result then we’ll address that when it comes along.”
Despite the seemingly unending turmoil which has engulfed the Tynecastle club, the fact remains that Hearts remain just six points behind their rivals while, other then David Wotherspoon’s shot which earned Hibs some measure of revenge for last May’s mauling at Hampden, the two league matches between the sides so far have ended level.
McGivern, though, is well aware Hibs fans are looking forward to Sunday’s clash with a little more relish than has been the case for some time, the majority of the Easter Road support enjoying the problems their rivals are suffering. “There’s not been much between ourselves and Hearts in the games we’ve played this season,” he said. “They’ve pretty much been battles and I’d expect Sunday to be the same although hopefully we can get the ball down and play a bit more football than in the previous games. Speaking personally, I don’t know what has gone on over there and I’m pretty sure the rest of the boys are much the same. We have to focus on what we are doing, how we are getting on in the league and the Cup. Their problems are their problems to solve, nothing to do with what we are doing at Easter Road.”
Hearts, though, will arrive on the other side of the city buoyed by having brought a run of five straight defeats to an end and hoping the twin threat of John Sutton and Michael Ngoo will propel them to victory. But while lwell aware of the danger the two frontmen may pose, McGivern said: “We’ve played a lot of games this season against two big men up top so we won’t be too worried about them. I’m sure if we bring our A game to the table then we’ll hopefully get the result.”
And if Hearts’ hopes are pinned on Sutton and Ngoo, McGivern insisted Hearts could well be more concerned about the danger of Leigh Griffiths, the hitman’s hat-trick against Kilmarnock making it seven goals in five games for the on-loan Wolves star and taking his tally for the season so far to 22.
McGivern said: “Leigh is on fire, a real live-wire. Even when we play with just him up he occupies the whole back four. I think most defenders are petrified about what he can do, he can turn a game on it’s head in a second and, to be honest, I’m really thankful he is in our team.”