Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom: Let’s step up and challenge Old Firm
The Leith side are preparing to host Celtic in today’s televised encounter, with their opponents on the brink of sealing an eighth successive Premiership title and a third straight treble.
Upon his arrival in the game north of the Border for the first time in February, Heckingbottom admits he was struck by a palpable feeling among the football fraternity that both the Hoops and Rangers are untouchable.
If such a compliant attitude does exist, as the former Leeds United and Barnsley manager claims, there are an abundance of reasons for it.
No team outside the Glasgow clubs has won the top-flight since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen took the chequered flag in 1985.
Then there is the yawning gulf in finances. According to the 2018 Global Sports Salaries report, Celtic pay their players more than £700,000 more per year than every other top-flight club, barring Rangers.
The only blot in Heckingbottom’s early stewardship remains last month’s Scottish Cup loss to Celtic, Hibs having gone unbeaten in the league under the 41-year-old, with 20 points from a possible 24.
But the Barnsley-born coach is keen to lead an uprising in the Scottish game. “You can pay them too much respect, sit off them too much,” remarked Heckingbottom, who was quick to point out that such a mind-set does not exist within his own squad.
“I’ve heard it ‘Ah, Celtic are the best team, they’ll win the league…’ and barring Rangers, everyone sort of accepts that. That’s where I’d love to change that mentality, of everyone and every team.
“You speak to people in the game, speak to media, speak to fans, as someone who’s come up into the league, and when you can play each other four times a year, there’s just this ‘Aw, it’s Celtic again, we’re not taking points there…’
“It’s in people’s language. I get what they mean but there’s that many people say it, that everyone starts to believe it. And that’s been the biggest thing I’ve seen since I came up, with Celtic in particular but also Rangers to a lesser extent.
“I’m just someone coming up with fresh eyes and seeing that. They’ve got good players, a good team and to keep the hunger to do it year on year, is good, but come on, let’s everyone step up and give them a good fight, eh?”
Whether Heckingbottom’s bold plan to change the mind-set will come to fruition remains to be seen.
However, Hibernian midfielder Mark Milligan has been left in no doubt that Heckingbottom’s arrival is good for him on a personal level.
At the age of 33 and with some 79 caps for Australia behind him, the defensive-midfielder admits he has been stimulated by the manager’s approach on the training pitch.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m still playing,” said the former Melbourne Victory player, pictured. “I like the fact I can come into training and keep learning and he’s definitely brought that for me.
“I’m seeing things that I haven’t seen before and different ways of doing things. When you get older you want to continue to be challenged and that’s as much physically as it is mentally for me – probably more so mentally now. It’s very enjoyable to come in and learn different ways, whether that be a defensive press or when we have the ball.
“He’s definitely been able to do that, he’s been able to challenge me and it’s on a day-to-day basis.”
Milligan was brought to Hibs last summer by Neil Lennon but reckons Heckingbottom has made vast tactical changes to the team that the current Celtic manager left behind in January. “I think Neil might be surprised by us as we have done things differently,” said Milligan.
“We have had a decent time with the new boss and slowly but surely we are grasping what he wants and we are transforming as a team.
“The results are showing that. It is nice to learn a new way of playing and executing it while winning.”