Seven points clear of Dunfermline and with just five SPL matches remaining, a pretty comfortable cushion for Hibs in the battle for survival in the top flight.
Or so it would seem. For the Easter Road outfit’s record in the “post-split” era in recent seasons makes grim reading, just three wins claimed in 25 such matches over the course of the past five years.
It’s enough to send a shudder down the spine of every Hibee fan and reason enough for boss Pat Fenlon to have warned his players against dreaming of Hampden and the already much-hyped Scottish Cup final with Capital rivals Hearts.
The first all-Edinburgh final in more than 100 years has, naturally, captured the imagination of the entire nation far less that of supporters at Easter Road and Tynecastle but as welcome as the prospect of such a game is for Hibs at the end of a tortuous season, Fenlon has resolutely insisted retaining their place in the SPL has to be the over-riding priority.
There are those who, given Hibs’ failure to secure that particular piece of silverware for 110 years, claim they’d be prepared to swap relegation for cup glory, an achievement that eluded the likes of the Famous Five and Turnbull’s Tornadoes.
It is, of course, a romantic notion, the harsh economic facts of the world of football, already struggling in the currrent financial climate, making it imperative Hibs remain in the SPL, maligned as it is by many, with matches against Celtic, Rangers (presuming the Ibrox club’s fight to remain in business succeeds) and Hearts rather more appealing than the prospect of the likes of Morton, Hamilton and Ayr United – not to mention lucrative television deals or the simple question of pride.
Fenlon has been well aware of that fact since taking over from Colin Calderwood last November, the Irishman enduring a somewhat rocky road with Hibs floundering at the foot of the table with, for the most part, only Dunfermline for company.
The outlook has at times looked much more grim than it does today, the four points gained from Hibs’ last two league games against Inverness Caley and Motherwell widening the gap between themselves and the Pars with Fenlon and his players no doubt hoping their current advantage has increased again – or at least not diminished – before Jim Jefferies’ side pitch up at Easter Road early next month.
Jefferies has already expressed the hope that May 19 and Hampden might act as something of a distraction for Fenlon’s players, that they might take their eye off the ball and allow the Fife club to slip past them and to safety.
Fenlon, for his part, is equally determined that won’t happen. The Irishman is concious of the fact that Hibs’ post-split record doesn’t make the most pleasant of reading but, he reasons, there’s nothing he can do about the past.
“To be honest, any thought of the Cup Final has been put to bed,” he said, “It is important we stay in this league. That’s the focus and anything else is a bonus. We won’t be talking about the Cup, I’ve told the players to do their job which is to make sure we win enough games to stay up. I’d like that to be as soon as possible but I don’t care when it happens so long as we succeed in that aim.”
As in last season Hibs’ final, five matches take place in the lower half of the league, the same run of fixtures last year earning Calderwood’s side a single point from a possible 15 as they slipped to a tenth-place finish. This time round the target is simply to finish one off the bottom, hardly success for a club of Hibs’ stature but the season was written off in terms of the league a long time ago with supporters resigned to the fact that avoiding relegation was all that counted.
Fenlon, so used to picking up silverware during his years as a manager in his homeland, admitted: “From our point of view the position hasn’t really changed. There was never any question of us getting out of the bottom six, it’s all been making sure we finish above last place.”
To that end, if Hibs have found the final five games something of a struggle in recent years – although admittedly in four of those seasons they faced tougher opposition in the top six – Fenlon surely will find a promising omen in his side’s form since the turn of the year. As with the rest of the season it’s hardly been something to rave about but the fact they haven’t lost to any of the teams they’ll be facing over the next few weeks – with wins over Dunfermline, Kilmarnock (twice), Inverness Caley and Aberdeen along the way – shouldn’t be overlooked.
Caley remain on the fringes of the relegation issue although Terry Butcher’s side lie five points ahead of Hibs but while they’ll consider themselves safe from relegation itself, they will want to ensure they aren’t overhauled in the closing stretch by the Capital side. How the players of Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Saints contend with the closing fixtures will also come into the equation, those three clubs well clear of the danger zone leaving them with the “distinction” of finishing top of the bottom six as their only goal. With so little at stake – although clubs will be concious of the increased bonus money available depending on how high they finish – many will wonder if Kenny Shiels, Craig Brown and Danny Lennon may use the remaining games with an eye to the future, resting players who have been carrying knocks, blooding youngsters and so on.
Fenlon, though, insisted that was none of his concern, adamant Hibs can only focus on playing the side facing them as the fixtures unfold. He said: “I can’t speak for others but I am sure their players will want to finish the season properly, with more points and will play with pride.”