JOHN Hughes has sought to remind Hibernian fans of how their team had been weakened last summer by insisting that their midweek capitulation to Motherwell would not have happened if former captain Rob Jones had been playing.
Jones and striker Steven Fletcher left Easter Road for England last year, and while their replacements have at times played well, Hughes has struggled to explain the extended loss of form that Hibs have been undergoing since February. One factor which has come into play, he believes, is a lack of experience and physical toughness, both qualities which Jones displayed during his time as Hibs captain.
With Sol Bamba suspended for the visit to Motherwell, the softness at the heart of the Hibs defence was even more cruelly exposed on Wednesday night, when they surrendered a 6-2 lead in the last 25 minutes of the game.
"If Rob Jones is playing the other night, the three points are coming back to Easter Road," Hughes said yesterday. "Simple as that. He just revels in that. 'Put it in'. Boom, right. 'Here's the kitchen sink, now heid that as well'.
"Can you instil that winning attitude in them? I think you can."
With one game remaining in the SPL, Hibs still have two chances of qualifying for Europe. They will definitely make it if they finish fourth by getting a better result against Dundee United tomorrow than Motherwell manage at Ibrox, or they could qualify from fifth place if United defeat Ross County in the Scottish Cup final a week today.
Hughes still argues, then, that this season should be seen as a positive one for his club. Indeed, in defiant mood yesterday, he even insisted that the draw with Motherwell could be interpreted in a positive light.
"I could put a spin on it to say I felt we played some great football on a tricky surface. To go away from home and score six goals – absolutely fantastic. That was the same Motherwell side that won 2-0 at Tynecastle the week before.
"And with the run we're on, to show that spirit – absolutely fantastic. If the game had gone 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 3-2, everybody's saying it's the best game they've seen in the history of the SPL.
"But the bottom line is when you're winning 4-1 or 6-2 you should see the game out, and that wasn't the case. That's the real disappointment. I've been involved in high-scoring draws before, but not as much as that.
"On reflection it does feel like a defeat. There's a little bit of embarrassment there with the way it went.
"But it's not too bad. It gets us a point, Hearts can't catch us, and it sets us up for Sunday. If we can go there and pick up three points, and get a favour done by Rangers, we can pick up fourth spot."
The mistakes made by goalkeeper Graeme Smith were among the biggest factors in Motherwell's fightback, but Hughes said he will not drop the hapless keeper for the match at Tannadice. "He made one or two mistakes, but Graeme Smith will be in goals on Sunday. We brought him to the club because we know what he's got. He's vastly experienced, he's good about the dressing room, he works his socks off.
"He just needs to go and show on Sunday what he's all about. He's played his part this season with some great saves. It's a test of his character to turn up on Sunday and have the game of his career."
Had Graham Stack been fit, Smith may not have got the chance. But, with the Englishman and Mark Brown both out with injury, Hughes had a straight choice between Smith and Yves Makalambay. Even those Hibs supporters who no longer see eye to eye with Hughes might find themselves in agreement with the manager on that one.