The one thing Hibernian are not short of as they head into this Friday’s meeting with Dundee United is incentives.
A draw in the last encounter between the title favourites, at Easter Road, ended all square, so there is an added determination to get the win and stamp their authority on the Championship race, because, after three seasons in the second tier, there is also the need to make the step up or, for many, step out of the door.
There are more than a dozen first-team squad members out of contract at the end of the campaign and they know that the club will not be in a hurry to renew or even discuss terms until they know which division will be home next season.
“The club are in a position whereby they can’t be handing out two, three, four-year deals to anybody because of the current climate, said defender Darren McGregor. “At my age I don’t think I’d get a four-year contract anyway. I’d be happy with a couple, but I think we are all aware of the predicament we are in and that’s more of an incentive for players to step up to the mark and really push for that point gap so that getting towards the end of the season we are in a position where we can bargain.
“But, for me, it’s a bit rich sitting here just now saying I want this or that when the season is only a quarter done.”
A long way to go but, coming through what was considered a tricky patch of five games without a win, Hibs did enough in that time to edge their way to the top of the standings and consolidated that with a sequence of five games without defeat. Four wins and a draw in that run means they are three points clear of second-place Dundee United and a victory at Tannadice on Friday night would plump up that cushion.
“It’s a big one,” acknowledged McGregor. “That’s what you are in football for, the big games. I think at the start of the season people would probably have pinpointed ourselves and Dundee United as being the ones contesting the top of the league. It’s difficult, last time here it was one apiece so we have a point to prove and we are confident going into the game.
“I think the Queen of the South game [in their last match before the prolonged wait for this fixture] was our best performance of the season so far. I think from start to finish we were exceptional. I thought we were superb.”
Such superlatives have been swirling around the Hibs set-up in recent weeks with manager Neil Lennon extolling the team’s displays as outstanding, while members of the squad, including McGregor, have been touted for international honours of the back of some showings. But McGregor says they have to recreate those performances, and even build on them, against Dundee United if they want to convince everyone that it really could be third time lucky and show their challengers a clean set of heels in their quest to get back to the Premiership.
“It’s definitely a benchmark. The league won’t be won in December but if we get that six-point gap then there is a mentality there to maintain it and kick on from there. But football is too unpredictable to think a six-point gap would be enough to kick on. We just need to go into the game and win it. We are on a good run of form, a good solid base. The way we are playing we have players who will score.”
The last time they met Ray McKinnon’s side, who themselves are desperate to bounce straight back after just one season out of the top division, it was James keatings who netted. Out injured, Hibs have explored other options and found the likes of Martin Boyle happy to respond while Grant Holt, Brian Graham and Jason Cummings vie for inclusion.
But having reached the hilt, the whole team, from the miserly rearguard and the competitive and creative midfield right through to the currently goal-hungry forwards, will have to contribute and prove they can handle the pressure of being hunted down. In past season, with Hearts and Rangers sharing the Championship billing, the spotlight was shared but with 16,000 fans turning up every week demanding promotion, there is growing pressure.
Having overcome the odds to win the Scottish Cup last term, McGregor believes they have the mental capacity to cope.
“There’s always pressure but as the gaffer says you would rather be top than mid-table or bottom so we have to handle that,” he said. “We need to get out of this league and everyone knows the repercussions of not doing that so we have to handle the pressure.
“We are at a big club, a massive club, so the pressure is on us to win. We are aware of that and we need to step up to the mark every week. Teams will come here and make it difficult because they are playing against the supposed best team in the league but we have to maintain our standards. If we drop them we’ll be vilified, so it’s up to us.”