Neil Lennon knows that his men have the ability to win the Championship but he needs them to start proving they have the mentality.
A month ago Hibernian looked ready to run away with the league title and procure promotion to the Premiership with time and fixtures to spare. Since then a stuttering run of results has left them nine points shy of the tally they had been hoping for as they head into this evening’s match against Dundee United, and while they are again impressing on cup duty, their boss knows that they remain vulnerable to a title challenge.
“You can’t think about what might have been. We are still in a strong position and we know what a win [at Tannadice] would do for us,” said Lennon. “It has been frustrating that we haven’t opened up a bigger gap but nothing is given to you, you have to earn it and we haven’t done that.
“The intensity and the quality of the cup performances have far outweighed the recent league performances so I know what the team is capable of. It’s just a case of transferring that mindset to the league and getting that consistency. I don’t think we are far away from putting a string of very good performances together. The cup, for now, is irrelevant. It is six or seven weeks away so our whole focus is the Championship and that’s the way it should be anyway.”
Confident his men can still make it over the line, the variation in the standard of displays in the cup and league frustrates the Hibernian manager who wants to prevent a repeat of last season’s league woe.
Last term the side enjoyed a historic cup win but, having pushed Rangers at one stage, faltered in the promotion push, eventually dropping away and then losing to Falkirk in the play-offs.
“We are seeing similarities with this time last year which is something I want to nip in the bud,” said the Easter Road manager. “I think they went eight games [with just one win] but they still had the cup. We’re having a decent cup run again but now we’re four without a win in the league so there is no question there are similarities. Now, the semi-final is out of the way and the League Cup is done and dusted so the only thing that we should be concentrating on is the league.
“Psychologically [the Scottish Cup run] has been a distraction, no question, and it has shown in the body language and the performances but now we don’t have to worry about that for a while so we can switch that off. But that is down to the players. I can say what I want time after time after time, but they have got to switch on to the league now.”
Stating that there is “no question” the issue is psychological, Lennon is pondering ways to shake things up and galvanise the team but hopes that a victory tonight would render any such mind games unnecessary.
“We may look at a different approach and do something, take a lateral way of thinking about it to maybe just take their mind off things,” he said. “But, really, we are more than good enough to put in better performances than the players have shown of late in the league.” The fact that key performers have publicly prioritised promotion to the Premiership ahead of retaining the cup is welcome news to Lennon, with John McGinn stressing that while the double would be nice, lifting the Scottish Cup again would serve as no consolation if they were to miss out on a return to the top flight for the third season in succession.
“Hopefully that’s the message the players are sharing and sending out,” said Lennon. “I want to see proof of that [against United].” But, after three draws and a defeat on recent league duty, he knows it won’t be easy to turn things around against the Tayside team.
“They are a good footballing team,” added Lennon. “They’ve got different ways of coming at you and they’re one of the teams that have beaten us this year so it’s a game that we are fully concentrating on. We know if they win the game, it will give them a big lift. If we win the game, then psychologically it will be huge for us.”