Hibs 5-1 Hamilton: High five has boss eyeing third

WHEN John Hughes came on board at Easter Road last summer he knew he was embarking on something of a mystery tour, aware that the team coach would transport him the length and breadth of the country but unsure of Hibs' final destination.

Today, though, the Hibs boss has no such uncertainty in mind, declaring to one and all that Europe will be the ultimate staging post when this season comes to an end.

Hughes studiously avoided any such talk as Hibs put together that 12-match unbeaten run, one which prompted in some circles some idle chat of Hibs even challenging Rangers and Celtic for the title itself, or at least splitting the Old Firm.

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The suitable time, he insisted throughout, would be at the midway point of the campaign, an appropriate moment to take stock of what had gone before and what might be possible in the remaining four months.

His hesitation in succumbing to the temptation of allowing himself to be swept up in all the hype which began to swirl around Easter Road appeared well-founded as he watched his side snare but a single point from matches against champions and SPL leaders Rangers, near-neighbours Hearts and Dundee United, possibly Hibs' greatest rivals for that tag of "best of the rest".

However, now Hughes is in no mood to keep secret his desire to see his first season as Hibs manager end with the prospect of Europa League football after the summer break.

Some may say Hughes was simply getting carried away having watched his players romp to a 5-1 victory over Hamilton, Hibs' biggest league win since the 6-1 hammering of Motherwell at Fir Park in November 2006 and their best result since that momentous day at Hampden when the CIS Cup was secured by the same scoreline almost three years ago.

But throughout this season Hughes has talked constantly of "raising the bar," of making demands on his players and staff as he seeks to realise his vision of where he wants to take Hibs as a club. So, does he allow the season to drift, giving his stars the notion that they've already done enough to satisfy their boss – or, as he has done, set a new target, one which won't be easily achieved but one which, nevertheless, Hibs are capable of meeting?

Hughes said: "There's no point shying away from it, I am wanting third place and Europe. I have said that to the players so let's make sure we are doing everything to try to achieve that. We have come this far and we all talk as managers of seeing the season through to Christmas but now this is the demand I am putting on them."

To that end, the victory gained in some style from an Accies side – which departed for home still in a state of shock having given a good account of themselves yet again – will go some way, Hughes believes, to help his players match his ambition.

While the three points are obviously important, it is probably the psychological lift each individual will have taken from arguably Hibs' best performance in a number of weeks which will prove equally vital, starting with Wednesday night's trip to face an under-pressure Celtic side in the east end of Glasgow.

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After what Hughes admitted was yet another slow start, Hibs were simply immense for an hour, Colin Nish opening the scoring before being joined on the scoresheet by Anthony Stokes and Derek Riordan who each claimed a double – all with only 54 minutes on the clock – and were also denied hat-tricks by the heroics of Hamilton goalkeeper Tomas Cerny who will still be wondering today how he managed to lose five goals.

Then again, without him, the margin of defeat might have been more humbling for Billy Reid and his men although the Accies boss, correctly, pointed to the saves Hibs goalkeeper Graeme Smith had to make before Flavio Paixao grabbed a consolation goal after Hughes players appeared to have tucked the tools away, the job having been completed in that devastating spell. Hughes said: "I felt for the first ten minutes Hamilton were the better side, Smith had one or two saves to make but after we got the first goal we played some really good stuff."

The Hibs managed acknowledged his side probably caught Hamilton "at the right time" following their three epic matches with Rangers, the last of which involved extra-time in midweek but even so there was no taking away from the Edinburgh team's display, one full of vigour, determination, hard work and no little measure of skill as witnessed in each of the goals scored.

Hughes said: "It's always nice to score goals, nice to get back to winning ways."

Perhaps there was no small coincidence in the return of Kevin McBride, the midfielder starting his first match since mid-November, the former Celtic, Motherwell and Falkirk star fulfilling a role which often receives little recognition other than that from his manager and team-mates.

As McBride provided that shield for the back four, it allowed Liam Miller and John Rankin to get to work further up the pitch, harrying the Accies players in possession and thus providing the openings for Stokes to take his tally for the season to 13 while Riordan, with a typically sumptuous free-kick, moved into double figures.

Hughes said: "Kevin is a big player for us and I think that showed. He's never going to score you a goal but he does a job because he is so clever in his positioning and how the game should be played. That let's Liam go and play. I was pleased about that but I was also pleased for the goal scorers.

"But I'm not getting carried away, I keep saying that in the SPL any team is capable of winning. We are just trying to create a culture here and put demands on the players to make sure we give the supporters what I think they deserve and that's always challenging in the top half of the table and getting to the latter stages of the Cup competitions."

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As Hibs' newest arrival, Smith has already tasted a third-placed finish and Europe having helped Motherwell do so and although he's only been in the door a short time the goalkeeper believes he has already detected the desire and ability within Hughes' squad to replicate that achievement.

He said: "We have the ability, there's no question we can do it. But it's a matter of attitude, mindset and luck. More and more as a player I feel luck does play a part so hopefully we will get that from now to the end of the season and make sure the supporters go away happy." And Smith insisted that the "togetherness" within Hughes' squad will prove pivotal to their shared ambitions. He said: "I'm passionate about that Motherwell team, we were all that close together we would go anywhere and stand up to anyone, we weren't scared or intimated by anywhere or anyone.

"I don't think we'll find that closeness but, ability-wise, we have it. It's the other part, digging in, working hard for each other, fighting and scrapping for each other, being a team.

"I am sure if we do that we will do well and hopefully go places.

"There have been good Hibs teams in the past, I have seen them myself and hopefully we are building something that can possibly match the success the club had under Tony Mowbray and others like that.. If we can do that, it will be a good, positive start."