Aidan Smith: Hibs boss Jack Ross needs to win a big one and now would be the perfect time
You have to go back to the disastrous reign of Terry Butcher for the last time Hibernian lost four league games in a row and no Hibby wants to be reminded of that time, believe me. Not when it was actually six defeats on the bounce, with the affable big fellow contriving to transform the team from Euro contenders into relegation chumps in the space of a few months.
Jack Ross has not yet lost four on the trot but that could easily be the state of affairs after tomorrow night. After all, it’s Celtic away. Celtic, still vainly trying to catch Rangers. Celtic, disentangling the tail from between their legs after Dubai. Celtic, hoping to demonstrate to Nicola Sturgeon that Scottish football is deserving of her attention with the perceived decadence of that jaunt being untypical, even though the team in flip-flops at poolside will never look great when everyone at home is slipping on ice during their Covid-restricted constitutionals.
Plus, it’s Hibs. Hibs, displaying their soft and sensitive side once again. Hibs, off the back of being straightforwardly dismantled by Livingston. Hibs, who’ve still to win a big game under Ross.
By big I mean sit-up-and-take-notice and season-defining. Early on in Ross’s tenure they did beat Aberdeen at Easter Road but have been put in their place by the Dons every time since. That place is fourth in the table and for a while it has seemed as if that’s where they are going to end up. Suddenly, though, like an over-merry festive-season reveller, they have decided to challenge their own shadow to a fight. Unlikely to catch Aberdeen, they could yet be reeled in by one of the teams below them.
Ross has engineered a win over Hearts, albeit when their capital rivals seemed themselves to be staggering around drunk last Boxing Day. Just a few weeks later, though, the chaotic Jambos beat up at Hibs at Easter Road, and the stadium DJ quickly slipped the 45 of Sunshine on Leith back in its sleeve (an antiquated and doubtless redundant image, but you get my drift). Ross has yet to hear the anthem sung by the faithful, and with predecessor Paul Heckingbottom having mucked up his opportunities, you have to go back to Neil Lennon’s hat-trick of derby victories for the last lusty renditions.
Then there was the previous season’s delayed Scottish Cup semi-final. To date that’s been the biggest of Ross’s big games in almost 14 months in the job and Hibs properly messed it up. They failed to take their chances. Big players didn’t show up. Hearts looked like they wanted it more.
With no wins against either of the Old Firm so far Ross would like one on Monday night, especially on the back of recent results. There is no shame in losing to Rangers at Ibrox but shipping five goals without reply to Ross County and Livi in successive home games raised eyebrows and lowered expectations.
What has gone wrong? Has anything or is this just a blip? Ross points out that he’s picked virtually the same team every week and there’s no doubt that individual performance levels have dipped.
Now, it could be argued that this strangest of strange seasons has been a little bit meh for all the Premiership clubs. Everyone apart from Rangers, that is. There might also be an argument for Hibs, in the absence of any fans, having acquired the most representative Covid profile: that is, they over-perform in away games but under-perform at Easter Road.
All of this and maybe even that Hampden failure against Hearts will be forgotten if Ross can mastermind a victory in his next big game after Celtic and overcome St Johnstone in the Betfred Cup semi-final on January 23 - then have his side lift the trophy.
Hibs have been installed as favourites but, being Hibs, this means diddly. The Perth team hardly ever give them an easy game. St Mirren have already disposed of Rangers and Aberdeen. And then there are Livi whose manager - new like Ross County’s - revealed after the recent win that he’d still been able to scrutinise enough Ross gameplans to work out how to trump them.
There’s a view - put about by grumpy Hibs fans and supporters of less fashionable clubs - that the men in green may have been over-praised this season. It is true that pundits who haven’t seen them for a while lazily reference players who haven’t been in good form for a while. This month - when they will also face Rangers again - should prove pivotal in establishing whether the view is valid or bunk.
Yes, Kevin Nisbet and Ryan Porteous are not yet the finished articles. Yes, Christian Doidge is one of those lucky strikers not able for the time being to secure deflection off a random backside. The older players are - shock, horror - not getting any younger. Martin Boyle is more off-the-boil than on. Stevie Mallan’s worldy opportunities have reduced right down. He’s emblematic of Hibs right now: he needs a new trick and so do the team.
But they can still find one. Ross earlier in the season found a way to stop them leaking so many goals and now would be the ideal moment for reset. Not for the first time in their history Hibs are flattering to deceive. Ross, meanwhile, has reached the point where he would want to be turning the flattery of Brendan Rodgers a few years back into something tangible. Such as silverware. No pressure, then …
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