A RESOUNDING, never-in-doubt 3-0 win away to Queen of the South and a sixth clean-sheet victory in seven games, yet still on-form, momentum-gathering Hibernian trail Championship leaders Rangers by 11 points.
They do have a game in hand – away at Falkirk a fortnight tomorrow – which could bring the arrears down to eight, but, just eight games in, the Easter Road are finding, for a second season running, that just a couple of early-season lapses can prove costly when battling for a title with a rampant, win-at-all costs rival.
Last season, at the eight-game mark, Hibs were 12 points adrift of eventual champions Hearts. This season, although they have collected six points more than they had at this stage last year, they find themselves ranked as 20-1 outsiders for the title in early autumn.
The bookies’ view is shared by Queens captain Chris Higgins, whose team have been thrashed at home by both sides in what has now become a seven-game run without a win.
“Rangers have confidence going right through the club – I think it’s clear that they’ll win the league,” he said. “But Hibs are a good side and they’ll be up there.”
Since mid-February, Hibs have won 15 of their 21 league games, an impressive-enough 71 per cent victory rate. To have any chance of hauling themselves back into title contention, though, they will have to get far closer to the 100 per cent mark between now and the end of the season.
They showed in beating Aberdeen in the League Cup last month and in Saturday’s clinical demolition of Queen of South that they are a strong team, with good players in all departments.
However, for one reason or another, they have contrived to ship five valuable points against St Mirren and Dumbarton, which have allowed Rangers to take command.
Jason Cummings, who opened the scoring at Palmerston then had a hand in the second, insists he takes no notice of the Ibrox side and is concerned only with ensuring his own team become as consistent as possible.
“What Rangers do doesn’t bother me – I don’t really pay any attention to any of that,” he said. “I just concentrate on myself and my own team. I don’t come straight in and check the Rangers score after our game – I’ll have a look later on but it’s certainly not my first thought. I just like to come into the dressing-room after a good result and gadgy into [have a banter with] all the boys.
“There are a lot of decent teams in the league so there are going to be a few slip-ups here and there but we just need to keep winning every game we can.”
To that end, Hibs’ cause should be aided by the apparent return to form of Dominique Malonga.
The Congolese internationalist’s has generally toiled to ignite since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations early in the year. However, an excellent goal against Aberdeen allied to a man-of-the-match performance at Palmerston, where he was instrumental in his side’s first two goals, suggests he may be getting back to the level that brought him 11 goals in his first three months with the club.
“Dom was different class,” said Cummings, his main strike partner of the last year or so.
“He didn’t get a goal but he worked his socks off for the team and linked things up well. You know he’s always going to do something when he’s on the ball. When he gets the ball I always try to get close to him because he’s capable of sliding you in, like he did a few times against Queens.
“Technically he’s a top player – he’s a joy to play with. We’ve got a good understanding of how to play with each other. He likes to peel out wide or sometimes play in the hole and I like to get in the box, so I give him space to play in.”
After a productive afternoon’s work of his own, Cummings was substituted with 20 minutes left in order to avoid a red card.
Having been booked for not retreating at a free-kick, he was fortunate to escape further sanction for dissent and then a late tackle.
“The gaffer took me off because I was getting a bit frustrated,” he said. “I might have got a second yellow when I caught the boy but I didn’t mean it. The linesman decided I shouldn’t have been sent off, thankfully. I’m working on controlling my emotions, though.
“Sometimes I get a wee bit caught up in the game. It’s just because I want to win and score goals, so I put a lot of pressure on myself.
“If I give the ball away, it frustrates me, so I just need to control things a wee bit.”