Hibs v St Mirren: Why a win means more than just three points this time around
Failing to reach that landmark would have left the club with five pretty meaningless matches and a negative atmosphere surrounding the club. Missing out cost then manager Shaun Maloney his job at this point last season. No such concerns this time around, though, for current boss Lee Johnson and his players. The 1-1 draw at St Johnstone, combined with Livingston’s failure to beat Dundee United and St Mirren’s surprise defeat at home to Kilmarnock, means that Hibs go into the final five post-split fixtures in fifth place on 44 points, ahead of the Buddies on goal difference (by 8) and four points away from Hearts in fourth place. They host the Paisley men on Saturday afternoon in what Johnson calls “Hibs’ biggest game of the season”.
Catching Aberdeen in third place seems unlikely, given they are nine points ahead and on a seven-game winning run. That is the position expected to bring European riches if, as is widely expected, Celtic defeat Inverness in next month’s Scottish Cup final. It would bestow whoever finished third with guaranteed group-stage football in at worst the Europa Conference League. But there is also another knock-on effect, with fifth place qualifying for a place in the second qualifying round of that competition.
St Mirren, who were also relieved that their faux pas in front of a sell-out crowd at home to Kilmarnock did not prove costly, hold the same ambition as Hibs. This is the first time they have finished in the top six since the split’s inception back in 2000. The surprise package this season, Stephen Robinson’s men are now focused on finishing with a flourish. The Paisley club last played in Europe in the 1987/88 campaign, knocking out Tromso before losing to KV Mechelen. Their relatively new SMiSA Stadium has never hosted a match of such repute.
There is no real pressure for St Mirre in hitting such a milestone. Hibs, however, have different targets. They want to be a regular on the European stage, no doubt green with envy after Hearts’ adventures in the Europa Conference League group stages this term. Ticket sales have been very good for the Buddies’ visit, and a healthy away crowd is also expected. Whoever wins will be in the driving seat for fifth place come 5pm on Saturday.
“We believe we can get into Europe,” said Saints boss Robinson. “We have taken points off every team in the top six so there is certainly not a fear factor. We believe in what we do. Yes we will probably be the underdogs in every game, I would imagine, but we are used to that I and I think we are better when that is the case. We will need to perform better than we did against Kilmarnock, we are very well aware of that, but we will do. We genuinely believe we can get a European spot.”
So do Hibs, though, who have been plagued by injuries and inconsistencies this season but have also shown signs of just how good a team they can be under Johnson. "It was a relief when we got top six and it's for the fans as well,” said defender Will Fish, who is on loan from Manchester United. “We would have let the fans down if we didn't, but now that we have got it we will see how far we can go up the table.”
There was further positivity this week when Hibs announced the appointment of Brian McDermott as the club’s new director of football. Their late owner Ron Gordon believed such a position needed to be reinstated in order for more success and the 62-year-old former Reading and Leeds manager, whose more recent roles centre around scouting at Arsenal and Celtic, is expected to bring about a change in recruitment. That is one area that has been hit and miss recently for Hibs, for while players such as Elie Youan and James Jeggo have impressed, others such as Jair Tavares and Elias Melkersen have not. Qualifying for Europe would naturally allow Hibs to bring in a higher calibre of player.
Fish, a hulking 20-year-old centre-half, is one player Hibs may look to keep on in some shape for next season. After a slow start to his career in Edinburgh, he has come on leaps and bounds, particularly next to the experienced Paul Hanlon. While coy on his exact future plans, the player did admit that he has a taste for playing regularly. “I definitely wouldn't go back to playing reserves football,” Fish said. “I think everyone is on the same page with that. Once you get a taste of that, Saturday 3pm when there's pressure to get three points and you've got fans cheering you on, it's hard to get that feeling elsewhere. I'm definitely going to go somewhere. It would be amazing to play for a club like Hibs in Europe. I'm solely focusing on the next five games and people behind the scenes can work on my future and we'll see what happens at the end of the season.”
Hibs helped kick-start their season with a 1-0 win in Paisley back in February and also vanquished the Buddies 3-0 at home earlier in the campaign. The experiences of those matches will probably count for little this weekend given the magnitude of this encounter and St Mirren will have to do without Tony Watt, who injured his ankle in training and could miss the rest of the season. With Jonah Ayunga also sidelined, the onus falls on Curtis Main to spearhead the attack. Hibs are boosted by the rescinding of midfielder Jeggo’s red card in Perth and have defender Rocky Bushiri back fit after a long-term injury. Striker Mykola Kukharevych is also back in the squad.
A draw would not be a disaster for either team but given the stakes are so high at this stage of the season, a victory would carry more than just the three points.
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