Hibs keeper Smith calls on older heads to lead Euro push

GRAEME SMITH today urged the senior players in John Hughes' Hibs squad to shoulder the responsibility of taking the Easter Road outfit into Europe.

While Motherwell's victory over Hearts has left Hibs' Euro hopes on a knife-edge, the Fir Park outfit now a point ahead in fourth, goalkeeper Smith remains convinced he and his team-mates can still be celebrating when the curtain comes down at Tannadice a week on Sunday.

And, although only three matches remain in what has been another rollercoaster season for the Hibees, Smith firmly believes there's plenty of potential for a few twists and turns yet with the Edinburgh club still to play Hearts, who retain faint hopes of Europe themselves, and Motherwell. Fifth place, of course, could secure European football if Dundee United defeat First Division shock troops Ross County in the final of the Active Nation Scottish Cup but that's a scenario Smith simply refuses to contemplate.

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He said: "I don't think we can put our faith in what happens in the Cup final, we have to take responsibility for ourselves. Fourth place would take Europe and that's what we have to achieve."

To that end, the 26-year-old called on the more experienced members of Hughes' squad to play their part in steering Hibs towards their target, insisting they have to take the burden of doing so off the shoulders of younger players such as David Wotherspoon, Paul Hanlon, Anthony Stokes and Darren McCormack, all of whom are under 21.

The former Motherwell star said: "We are still generally a young squad, I'd regard myself as an older player and as such the onus is on those of us who have been through the mill and know what it is all about to help the young ones through, to take the responsibility for driving the club forward."

Many Hibs fans, of course, would consider finishing fourth something of a disappointment with Hughes' side touted as capable of splitting the Old Firm and possibly even mounting a title challenge of their own only to hit a horrendous run of form which has seen them win only two out of their last 15 matches.

Smith, however, would argue otherwise, claiming that for a club which had ended each of the three previous seasons in sixth place, it would be an indication of progress, Hibs' points tally already marginally ahead of last year's total.

He said: "Fourth would be an achievement. The manager has just come in this season, he's brought fresh ideas and, as I have said, we have a pretty young squad overall.

"The way we were in January it would be disappointing if we didn't achieve it but all we can do is take care of our own games and, if we do that, we'll hopefully get there.

"It's all very tight, but it's been looking that way for a couple of weeks now and I think it can still change week by week. When it's as tight as this even a draw can become a very good result but we can't go trying to guess what might happen elsewhere, we have to take care of business ourselves."

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Even although Hibs' losing run stretched to five matches as Kyle Lafferty's goal clinched yet another title for Rangers, Smith insisted that, like Hughes, he'd detected an improvement in the Easter Road club's play over the past couple of weeks.

Single-goal defeats by either side of the Old Firm might tend to support his belief but, nevertheless, Smith acknowledged success could well rest more on effort and commitment than entertaining football over the next few days.

He said: "There's often a fine line between a win, a draw or defeat as we've seen in our games against Celtic and Rangers. We could easily have taken a point or more from each of them.

"But there's been signs of improvement, that the confidence is coming back, so it is up to us to grab the bull by the horns and get over that line. Football isn't always pretty, sometimes you have to roll up the sleeves and get mucked in and get the supporters going."

Hibs can all but kill off Hearts' lingering hopes of Europe by avoiding defeat in Saturday's derby, the fourth and final clash of the Capital's big two this season, but, Smith insisted, all three points will be the aim on a day on which Motherwell travel to face a Celtic side rejuvenated under the interim care of Neil Lennon.

He said: "It sounds boring but all our focus has to be on Hearts, of hopefully winning that one and only then can we start to think about Motherwell the following Wednesday.

"Yes, there's pressure but I personally enjoy it. As a professional football player I go out there to do well, to keep a roof over my family's heads and to achieve something with this club.

"I think every player enjoys pressure, playing in the big games."

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Smith, of course, has already tasted European football, playing for Motherwell against Nancy in the UEFA Cup the season before last and although the French side triumphed 3-0 on aggregate, he insisted he's desperate to play his part in helping Hibs enjoy that stage again.

With rivals for the gloves Graham Stack ruled out for the season with an eye injury and Mark Brown similarly sidelined with a broken bone in his wrist, Smith appears certain to get that opportunity, his appearance against Rangers his first since the disappointment of losing to Ross County in the Cup.

He said: "There's no doubt European nights are special, it's something that's been missing for a club of our stature. Playing in Europe generates more interest both for the club and individual players, there's more publicity and I am sure it would be an attraction for anyone the manager might hope to persuade to join us over the summer.

"As a club it is important you do not rest on what you have done. The last month or so has not been good enough but it's up to us as players to address that and achieve our goal.

"On a personal level it was good to be back against Rangers although it all ended in disappointment. We knew they had to win to take the title having heard Celtic had beaten Dundee United just before kick-off but we had our own agenda which was to take the three points.

"Unfortunately it didn't work out for us but all we can do is roll up our sleeves and be ready to go again against Hearts.

"I haven't been happy sitting on the bench. I feel I have done all right since I came to the club in January. The manager made the decision to make the change and you have to respect that but I've been working hard in training every day and now, while it is bad luck for Graham, I've been given another opportunity which I hope I can use to help the club win that European place."