HIBS boss Pat Fenlon today insisted playing in the bottom six of the SPL table is going to be every bit as competitive as the matches before the split, with five teams battling it out to finish in seventh place.
The Easter Road outfit begin their bid to be that team when they face Aberdeen on Monday night and Fenlon anticipates his side will be confronted by a Dons outfit still smarting after being consigned to the lower half of the league by a last-gasp strike from Dundee United’s Rory Boulding in their final game before the split.
Hibs will also have to contend with the fact that it will be new Pittodrie manager Derek McInnes’ first match and that may well give Aberdeen a boost but with the incentive of claiming a place in his Scottish Cup final side at stake, Fenlon is looking for his players to recapture their early season form.
While still desperately disappointed not to have clinched that top-six finish which Hibs seemed assured of at the turn of the year, Fenlon said: “The final gives us a great target to go and finish seventh. There’s a lot to play for but it is going to be no easy task because there is so little between the teams in the bottom six as well as the top six.
“All the games will be as competitive as they have been all season. There’s been very small margins in all the games and I think we saw that in how that top-six spot changed over two or three weeks.”
Fenlon believes that while his players will have enjoyed a boost from their dramatic fightback from being three goals down against Falkirk to clinch a Cup final place for the second season in succession so, too, will the Aberdeen stars have received a lift from working with McInnes over the past couple of weeks as they’ve prepared for Monday night’s game.
He said: “Sometimes you go into the bottom six and there’s a massive gap between seven and eighth and then maybe down to a relegation fight but there seems to be very little, you can move two or three places with a victory so most of the games should be really competitive right up to the end.
“I think Aberdeen will be a bit like ourselves, they will be thinking they should be in the top six and disappointed they are not, the history of the club and all that sort of stuff while they’ll be smarting from losing out with the last kick of the game on the last day before the split. But with a new manager coming in you expect a lift.”
However, Fenlon, naturally enough, is more concerned with his own team’s performances.
He said: “At the moment the Cup final has not even entered my head, we have too many games before that. Monday is a massive game and it is the priority. We have been disappointed with the way we have been playing in the league over the past few months and we have to put that right. Our record at Easter Road has been very good. At the start of the season we were the last unbeaten team in the league at home and we have to get back to that. We have three home games before we get to the final so it is important we get that form back.”
Fenlon gave his players a few days off after their epic duel with Falkirk and insisted he’d seen the benefit of that break as they returned to training on Thursday to prepare for the start of the remainder of their campaign.
He said: “It was always our plan to give them time off with us not playing until Monday. That’s a long, long time to be training without a game but they’ve been bright and bubbly in training as we work towards Aberdeen.”
Fenlon returned to the news that Wolves manager Dean Saunders intends to invoke a one-year option on top scorer Leigh Griffiths’ contract to take him back to Molineux next season having been impressed by his 25 goals so far in a green-and-white shirt.
But while admitting he’d love to extend Griffiths’ stay in Edinburgh, the Irishman conceded there was little if anything he can do to prevent the striker returning to the Midlands.
He said: “Wolves haven’t been in touch but they don’t have to be as Leigh is their player. It’s between them and Leigh and I have said from the very start we do not have any great control over it. Leigh has been tremendous for us and between now and the end of the season he has a big part to play so we’ll just focus on that rather than worry on what will happen at the end of it.
“We’ve said we want to try to keep him, we’ve also said that from the start. We know that’s what we want and what the supporters want. We’ll continue to say that, as football is a strange game and things change.”