Hibs enter the red zone: So much to win - and lose - in Perth for club and Lee Johnson

A league season that started for Hibs at McDiarmid Park back in July could very well come to an abrupt end at the same Perth venue on Saturday if they fail to replicate that opening-day win.

Hibs’ top-six hopes rest, in the main, on how they fare against managerless St Johnstone in the last match before the cinch Premiership splits in two. Currently sitting sixth, they lead seventh-placed Livingston by a point with a superior goal difference of 14, while they trail fifth-placed St Mirren by a point but with a superior goal difference of six. The Buddies host Kilmarnock, while Livi are away at Dundee United, so even a draw or a defeat could be enough to secure Hibs’ berth in the upper section of this ultra-competitive division beneath the Old Firm. But to avoid any favours from elsewhere, a Hibs win would settle it. Josh Campbell scored bang on 90 minutes to give Lee Johnson’s men a 1-0 triumph on July 30. They will take the three points any which way they come once again.

Hibs’ ambitions are two-fold and go hand-in-hand. Johnson and his players want to qualify for Europe. Third place and the likely guaranteed group-stage football it would bring is the ultimate aim but the Easter Road outfit trail Aberdeen, the current inhabitants of that position, by seven points, albeit the in-form Dons take on Rangers this weekend. If Celtic or Rangers win the Scottish Cup, finishing fourth or fifth would net a Europa Conference League qualifying spot. Hibs feel they are in with a big shout of landing one of those prizes but they have to walk before they can run. Their trip up the M90 is therefore absolutely critical.

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The sun was beating down on Hibs’ East Mains training base on Thursday as first Johnson and then midfielder James Jeggo spoke to the media. Last weekend’s 1-0 win over Hearts has lifted spirits again following two uncomfortable and damaging defeats by Motherwell and Dundee United. Hibs have been streaky all season, blighted by inconsistencies. When they are good, they are very good, but the bad performances and long losing runs have cast a shadow over some fine work being done by Johnson and his staff in trying circumstances. Hibs have also been hamstrung by some terrible injuries and the trauma of owner Ron Gordon dying earlier this year.

The Hibs players prepare for Saturday's crucial Premiership match against St Johnstone.The Hibs players prepare for Saturday's crucial Premiership match against St Johnstone.
The Hibs players prepare for Saturday's crucial Premiership match against St Johnstone.

"We know exactly what we need to do,” said Jeggo, a no-nonsense January arrival who has stiffened up Hibs’ midfield. “It’s in our hands, which is the best position so we just need to go and get the job done. That’s what is so special about being at a club like Hibs, there’s so many big games and expectation which creates that pressure. It’s something I really enjoy as a player. There’s so many big clubs in this league, a lot who expect to be in the top six and have that expectation, that adds to the intensity of it.”

Hibs have a seasoned splitter in the 31-year-old midfielder, who experienced one of Europe’s other league separations with Austria Wien. He made the top section once, and missed out on the other occasion. “Austria has a funny system so if you finish in the top two of the bottom six you then play a play-off against each other – the winner of that plays fifth in the top six and the winner of that qualifies for Europe,” he explained. “They did that to give the bottom six a bit more incentive.”

No such potential rewards this time around. Failure to make the top six will mean five pretty meaningless fixtures for Hibs, who are well clear of the relegation zone. They will become prey for the four teams desperate for points down there. It would also heap pressure on a expensively-assembled squad and Johnson, given that one of his baseline KPIs is to finish at least sixth. Of course, the club slipped into the bottom half of the league this time last year when losing a derby to Hearts. Two days later, then manager Shaun Maloney was sacked. Johnson spoke on Thursday of the “constant support” he receives from Hibs’ hierarchy and while making another managerial change would be a knee-jerk reaction, everyone at Hibs knows the scrutiny will be back on should the unthinkable happen.

Play to their best, however, and Hibs should get the job done against St Johnstone, although they have to deal with the wildcard of Saints changing their manager at the start of the week. Steven MacLean takes over in an interim capacity from Callum Davidson as they look to arrest a dreadful run of two wins in 16 matches and avoid being dragged into the relegation zone. Johnson admitted that coming up against the unknown adds an extra challenge. “You don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “You get into the mindset of the managers in the league, which players they prefer, their go-to formation when the pressure is on. Normally you can pick the opposition’s team but with this one we don’t know, we don’t know the shape. It’s those types of things you are not able to work on so it’s ‘right lads, it’s our performance that matters, we’re aggressive and on the front foot’.”

Hibs manager Lee Johnson wants to finish in the top six and then press for the European positions.Hibs manager Lee Johnson wants to finish in the top six and then press for the European positions.
Hibs manager Lee Johnson wants to finish in the top six and then press for the European positions.

The last word goes to Jeggo, who called the scenes of celebration last weekend after the derby as “unbelievable”. “We want more moments like that,” he added. “They are special and the this club can give you them providing you do the business. The first step is getting a result this weekend.”



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