It’s hard to imagine that only a few months ago the SPL league table made miserable reading for Hibs fans. Whatever way you looked at it the statistics were damning.
Just two wins at home in the entire season with 30 goals conceded in the 19 league games played at Easter Road went a long way to explaining how the Capital club managed to avoid the threat of relegation by the skin of their teeth, the second of those victories on their own turf coming in the penultimate game as Dunfermline were condemned to the drop.
Fast forward to today, though, and it is an entirely different story, Pat Fenlon’s side boasting the best home record in the top flight, unbeaten so far and with ten goals scored and only four lost in the five matches played.
It is, of course, still very early in the season but even with that caveat, Fenlon’s players are beginning to inch towards one of their main objectives, of once again making Easter Road a venue opposition teams approach with more than a sense of trepidation.
St Mirren will travel on Saturday aiming to smash that record but, according to defender Paul Hanlon, they’ll find themselves up against a side not only brimming with confidence but one which has plenty of incentive to emerge with all three points.
A win could take Fenlon’s side, currently locked in second place with Aberdeen and St Johnstone although enjoying a better goal difference, back to the top of the table while the points gained would see them surpass the admittedly paltry total they amassed at home throughout the whole of last season.
While agreeing you can use statistics to support any argument you might wish to make, 22-year-old Hanlon insists the flurry of figures thrown at him make much more pleasant reading than he’d become accustomed to in a season most at Easter Road will happily forget.
The central defender said: “One of the biggest disappointments last season was our home record so we’re glad to have already surpassed that figure by winning three matches at Easter Road and being unbeaten so far.
“Now, though, we want to keep that unbeaten run going as long as we can. All the statistics are positive although, I suppose, they also show how poor we were last season.”
Hanlon admits the battle at the bottom of the table week-by-week probably got to him and his team-mates although, he insisted, it’s a different story now as Fenlon’s new-look side have taken the SPL by surprise.
He said: “When you aren’t winning the pressure builds on you. The fans aren’t happy with the performances, one slack pass early in the game and they start to get on your backs a bit which is understandable but it’s pretty much a totally new team this season so I think it’s a bit unfair to judge us against last season.
“It’s a new group of players, we’ve made a promising start to the season and now it’s down to us to keep it going.”
Hanlon believes, though, that amid the optimism there’s also a healthy dose of realism among the green-and-white army. He said: “I don’t think there are too many expecting miracles, more a hope of steady improvement. It’s going to be a long process to get to where we want to be but they’ve been right behind us even when things haven’t gone our way in a couple of the games.”
Although he’s anticipating a tough clash with St Mirren, Hanlon feels Fenlon’s players will go into Saturday’s match brimming with confidence following their impressive 4-0 win against Motherwell at Fir Park, a result which brought a great deal of satisfaction not only through the final scoreline but the performance produced and the fact, having lost three goals at Ross County the previous weekend, they’d emerged with a clean sheet.
Hanlon said: “Fir Park is a tough place to go so winning so well and putting in a good defensive performance will give our confidence a massive lift.
“We rode our luck a bit at times but when you are working hard for each other that’s the wee rub of the green you get, something that didn’t go our way too often last season.
“We’d kept a clean sheet against Dundee in our last home game but to go to Ross County and lose three was bitterly disappointing. Although you defend as a team it’s usually us guys at the back and the goalkeeper who carry the can so while we enjoy winning, we enjoy it all the more if we’ve stopped the opposition from scoring.
“If we can to that then we have the players, as we have seen, in Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle who can score goals while David Wotherspoon has also chipped in with a few recently. With them in the side if we can prevent the other team from scoring then we are more likely than not to win.”
In a match packed with controversy, Motherwell were left raging when, with Hibs leading 1-0, Fir Park defender Stevie Hammell powered in a header which the television cameras showed had crossed the line, a fact missed by referee Stevie O’Reilly and his assistant Francis Andrews.
But today Hanlon claimed goalkeeper Ben Williams’ lightning-fast reflexes had helped make it a tough call for the officials.
He said: “My own initial reaction was the ball was over the line and nine times out of ten it would have hit the back of the net. But Ben’s shot stopping is brilliant, he’s got down, made an instinctive save and clawed it away.”
And Hanlon had sympathy for the match officials. “I think it was a tough one for the assistant referee, there were a lot of bodies in the way and he was looking uphill.
“It wasn’t an easy call and we rode our luck a wee bit but we also worked very hard defensively and, as I have said, sometimes you get that wee rub.”
As memorable as last Friday night might have been – Hibs’ biggest away win in six years since they thumped Motherwell 6-1 on their own ground – Hanlon insisted Fenlon’s players must now follow that result with another victory, well aware if they do so they could well wake up on Sunday morning on top of the world.
He said: “It won’t count for much if we don’t win on Saturday. We have to build on our win over Motherwell and look to continue making Easter Road a tough place for anyone to come.
“There is, we know, the added incentive of being able to go top with Celtic not playing until Sunday afternoon.
We passed up a few chances to do that a few weeks ago before going top for a brief time after we beat Dundee.
“It’s nice to be able to pick up the Sunday papers and see yourselves at the top of the table.”