Hibs reaction: Top six first then Europe, Forever 15 shows decency in young Hearts fan tribute
Hibs will insist that they are still looking up but after Saturday’s shuffling of the little pack still battling it out for a spot in the top half of the table, the Leith side will also be very aware of what is happening below them. Overtaken by St Mirren, they dropped to sixth spot, and are just one point behind seventh-placed Livingston. Aberdeen’s win offered them a little more breathing space in fourth, suggesting it will be a three-way battle for the remaining two slots.
Still just five points adrift of Hearts, who are currently sitting ‘best of the rest’ with eight games remaining, Hibs’ European target remains unaltered but, if they want the final five games to count towards that ambition then they need to to make sure of a positive return from the final three pre-split fixtures. At the moment the Stephen Robinson’s Paisley outfit have the slight advantage but they also have, arguably, the toughest run-in, facing away head to heads with Hearts and then Rangers before a home match against Kilmarnock, a team they have failed to score against let alone beat this term.
Hibs have an away trip to lowly Dundee United, before a home derby, and then an away trip to St Johnstone, while Livingston have Motherwell away, St Johnstone at home before heading into the split on the back of an away day at Tannadice. There is no doubt that Hibs could still secure a European spot but they will have to focus on getting through the next three games first before embarking on a five-match post-split surge for the line. Slip up and miss out on a top six spot and the conclusion to the season will be a sore one.
Hibs have to go back to November/December to find a return of three or more defeats on the bounce. Back then they suffered four consecutive losses, which included the fixtures immediately before and after the World Cup break. After discovering their pluck at Ibrox, if not quite winning ways, in the final game of that run, things had been a while lot better. The arrival of CJ Egan-Riley and James Jeggo has provided greater balance to the side, protecting the back line and giving the attacking players greater freedom to stay forward, while that match through in Govan also coincided with the long-awaited return of Kevn Nisbet and the blossoming of Elie Youan.
Against Motherwell, the Frenchman was suspended, while Nisbet started for the first time since his blistering scoring streak was halted, when he was taken off injured against Ross County on the final day of January. As for the other two, Egan-Riley was deployed in defence, where he failed to shine as brightly, and Jeggo had probably his poorest game since arriving in Leith, joining a long list of players who had a serious off day. But while it was an unquestionably sub-standard display all-round, where they were unable to retain possession or string more than a couple of passes together at a time, less should be read into the three defeats on the trot than there might have been at the back end of 2022.
The first two were, after all, against Rangers and Celtic and given the points return of the former since Michael Beale’s arrival (they have dropped just two points, to their city rivals on Premiership duty) and the almost blemish-free domestic season being enjoyed by Ange Postecoglou’s league frontrunners (who have lost just once), there can be little shame there.
An off day against a rejuvenated Motherwell will be poor timing given what is at stake but they are not the first to be stung by a side who are a completely different challenge under Stuart Kettlewell, and all will, surely, be forgiven if it is the final blip before regaining their composure. But what they can’t do with things so tight and at such a pivotal point of the league campaign is allow the run to stretch any further. They face foot-of-the-table Dundee United next weekend and need to use that match to bounce back ahead of the next capital derby. Youan will be available again but others can’t afford the kind of off-day they produced at Easter Road on Saturday.
Football fans are usually happy to pay respects to one of their own but the minute’s applause and the unfurling of a banner honouring the young Hearts fan Andrew MacKinnon, who collapsed and died while playing football at school, was a laudable reminder that some things are more important than club rivalries. Come April 15, derby hostilities will resume as Hearts travel to Easter Road for a fixture the Leith side have not won since 2019 – a game both teams desperately need points from to further their top six and European ambitions, but just days after a young lad was laid to rest far too soon, empathy and human decency prevailed.