Hibernian all but sealed a top-six finish with a composed and accomplished defeat of Motherwell on Saturday and they are already looking upwards with an added incentive to keep picking up the points.
Heading back into the dressing room after a 19th-minute Marc McNulty penalty and a David Gray header 20 minutes later had allowed them to see off Motherwell and leave them five points clear in sixth, news filtered through that city rivals Hearts had lost to Hamilton. It means that just two points separate the city rivals, with Hibs now looking to finish the season on top.
It is a target midfielder Marvin Bartley is relishing. “You chase the team above you and now it just happens to be Hearts,” he said. “We are closing the gap on them.
“There are enough games for us to catch them and go beyond them so that’s our next aim.”
The idea of finishing the season with bragging rights appeals to Bartley, who has enjoyed the cross-city banter, winding up Hearts fans and players and has been rewarded with plenty of jibes in response.
“I thought they had won the league earlier in the season, the amount of messages I was getting from their fans, so it’s quite surprising that we are only two points behind them,” he said.
“That’s interesting isn’t it? You can’t really get too excited until all the games are gone or you are mathematically too far ahead of another team. Maybe that shows the mindset of some people to think ‘we’ve had a good start and they haven’t, so we’re miles ahead of them’. Now, we’ll see what happens but that is our next aim – to go ahead of them.”
The Leith side all but made sure that they would have another two derbies before the end of the season. The game against Motherwell was do or die for the Fir Park side who, having worked so hard in recent weeks to get themselves into a position to challenge, almost took the lead when Lewis Stevenson tried to clear a cross into the box and almost scored an own goal as he attempted to play it out, instead hitting the post.
There was another great opportunity late in the match for Danny Johnson but, in between, the home side controlled the match. Bright in attack and clinical in front of goal, they gained their advantage before half-time and then gave a mature demonstration of game management after the break, keeping the guests at arm’s length, allowing them possession in areas where they couldn’t hurt them and then hitting briskly on the counter.
It means that, after a start to the campaign that was well below the standards they set last term, they are unbeaten on Premiership duty under new boss Paul Heckingbottom, who has organised the side well. He has also benefited from the emergence of January signings McNulty and Stephane Omeonga. Alongside a stubborn makeshift defence and Daryl Horgan, they were integral to Saturday’s display.
“We’ve always known what we could do,” said Bartley. “We’re on a good run at the moment. You never get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. We believe in ourselves as a squad and as a club and we always think we are going in the right direction. I think we are showing that on the pitch.”
And he praised the part played by Heckingbottom. “Everybody has taken on board what he has said. We have to continue to do that. We’ve not done anything yet. We have had a good start but, as you know, good starts don’t mean anything. The team down the road had a good start and now we’re two points behind them.
“The first thing the manager said was that he wanted to be in the top six. That’s his aim. He very much puts building blocks in place. The first step is to be in the top six and then it’s always to chase the team above you. That’s the way he looks at it. That’s the mindset we have at the moment. When we do finish above them, I’m sure he will get a pat on the back and maybe a pint.”