Ultimately worthless in that there was no reward for their efforts, but entirely worthwhile in restoring some self-belief to the Hibs team – David Stephens today emphasised the significance of Friday’s abandoned fixture at Motherwell as a confidence boost to the Easter Road squad.
The match at Fir Park may not have served as a source of vital SPL points but will help Hibs climb the table nonetheless, says Stephens, after a commendable first-half display by the visitors, as well as a first “goal” for Garry O’Connor in more than two months, rendered a fire- induced abandonment all the more frustrating for those in green.
While Pat Fenlon endured a stuttering start to his career as Hibs boss and O’Connor will have to set about overturning his goal drought all over again, Wales under-21 internationalist Stephens says the positive vibes that permeated the away dressing-room after 45 minutes of action in Lanarkshire produced an energy he and his team-mates can feed off this Saturday lunchtime against Rangers.
“It’s null and void, but the game has helped the whole team regain confidence – and that’s what I said to Ivan Sproule after the game. It’s not a win, but in a sense it’s a win confidence-wise. Now the manager sees what we’re about. There will be no slacking from now on – he knows the standards we’ve set ourselves.
“There was a massive crowd and a good atmosphere. We got off to a wonderful start and felt comfortable. I don’t think we’ve felt like that for a long time. Maybe it’s the new manager and the way he’s got us working hard. But, it’s just a terrible shame for it to be abandoned.”
In a touching tribute to the 1500 or so Hibs fans, Stephens and Co re-emerged onto the pitch after the abandonment was announced to applaud their support. The 6ft 4in centre back would far rather have taken to the Fir Park surface to continue his convalescence following his mistake that allowed St Johnstone striker Francisco Sandaza to equalise at McDiarmid Park the weekend before. Stephens had spent the first half against Motherwell painstakingly reconstructing his game by making basic actions the foundation of a solid performance. Indeed, a remarkable feature of those 45 minutes – one inspired by the words of Fenlon and assistant Billy Brown, who both witnessed first-hand the horror show in Perth six days previously – was the Hibs’ defence adoption of the mantra “if in doubt, kick it out” at the merest hint of danger.
“Me personally, I wanted to go out and do the simple things well, especially after my mistake last week. It gets to your head sometimes. The manager has said, ‘Mistakes happen – just go out and play your own game, do the simple things well’ – and that’s what I try to do.
“[Fenlon] knows I’m a mature lad and I’ve made mistakes before, and I’m sure they’re going to happen again throughout my career. He just told me to go out and get on with it. Billy Brown had a word with me in training – he just said, ‘It’s a mistake, it’s happened to better players than you, you’ve got to get on with it.’
“That’s what I was looking to do, and it was really good going into the break 1-0 up. We’ve got to take the positives into Saturday’s game against Rangers.”
Hibs sit in tenth place in the SPL table and will regret the loss of a chance to convert a 1-0 advantage into points, especially with Motherwell, despite their own lofty league position, never having recovered from a half-time deficit to claim victory. Stephens is of the opinion, like so many others, that the current Hibs squad is of top-six calibre when on form.
“We need to put a few more wins together,” he said. “We have Rangers this weekend, and we seem to play well against the big teams. We’ll all be on top of our game for that one. Training this week will be 100 per cent, everyone competing for a place. So, the manager’s going to have a very tough job to pick his 11, but I’m sure the 11 he picks will go out and give their all and try to beat Rangers.
“He wants us to play attractive football and go out there and be confident. Sometimes, I wouldn’t say we’re not confident, but there’s hesitation and I think people are a bit apprehensive sometimes. He’s noticed that about our game, and said the main thing is that you need to enjoy it. The work ethic needs to be there – and the rest will come.
“We have seen glimpses of a good team, even under the previous manager. If we can get those glimpses back and build on the things we need to work on, I think we’ve definitely got a top-six team.”
Consistency is the key, says the former Norwich City youth teamer, but it is perhaps difficult to achieve for a team and its individual components when new managers come and go at such a rate as they have at Hibs in the past 14 months. Stephens only arrived at Easter Road at the beginning of last season but has already had to weather the storm of two managerial departures. He has already gained personal confidence in the Fenlon era from the fact he was named in the team at Motherwell, but aims to show the appreciation is mutual.
He said: “It’s happened twice. John Hughes brought me in, so I found it hard at first under Colin Calderwood. I managed to get in the team, I had to bide my time. This manager’s put me in straight away, so hopefully I can impress him, keep improving, and doing well for the team.”