Hibs were today warned to “think again” if they believe Inverness Caley will arrive in Edinburgh this weekend in holiday mode having secured a historic first top-six finish.
As delighted as Terry Butcher may be at such an achievement, former Inverness star Barry Wilson insists the Caley boss won’t allow his players to rest on their laurels as he turns his attention to clinching a place in Europe.
But while Butcher and Co set about chasing that new goal, Hibs go into Saturday’s match against a side which has caused them all sorts of problems, both home and away down the years, knowing they are in a “must-win” situation with Dundee United, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen also vying for a place in the top six and with only Celtic away to come before the SPL split.
Wilson, now manager of Highland League outfit Wick Academy, admits he’s full of admiration for his former club’s achievements this season, only a penalty shoot-out defeat at the hands of Hearts preventing them also making an appearance in the final of the Scottish Communities League Cup.
He said: “Caley have done great. They’ve probably shocked a few people and possibly even surprised Terry himself. It’s terrific that they’ve made the top six for the first time, but Terry isn’t one to leave it at that.
“Europe has to be the next challenge and for me they won’t have a better chance. I’m sure Terry will have them properly motivated, he won’t let them sit back and get their ‘Magaluf heads’ on and what a great achievement it would be for Caley to get into Europe.
“It’s been an outstanding season, although they probably took six or seven weeks to gel early on, but after that they’ve been a really good team to watch, with entertaining football and scoring plenty of goals although they are also liable to concede a few themselves.
“It’s been a real collective effort from the team. Caley have never had a real superstar, it’s never down to just one player as everyone mucks in.”
Billy McKay’s 24 goals have, naturally, hogged the headlines as far as Caley are concerned, but to underline Wilson’s contention of a genuine team effort, both skipper Richie Foran and Andrew Shinnie are in double figures, while even defender Gary Warren has chipped in with six goals.
Wilson contrasts the way the goals have been spread around by the Highland club with the reliance Hibs have on top scorer Leigh Griffiths, Eoin Doyle with eight strikes the closest to the on-loan Wolves hitman’s 22 while no-one else has netted more than David Wotherspoon’s three.
The 41-year-old said: “What a difference it makes to a team. When you have a couple of midfielders scoring between five and 11 goals and a striker around 20 then you aren’t going to be far away.
“Hibs have perhaps been too reliant on Griffiths. If he is not scoring then they have tended to struggle.”
Wilson also believes his old club will get a lift from returning to the ground where he feels their season really took off, Butcher’s players hitting back to claim a 2-2 draw at Easter Road in September despite having trailed to goals from Doyle and Wotherspoon as Hibs themselves were putting together an impressive start to the season.
The former midfielder said: “To be honest, I think that was a turning point in Caley’s season. They were struggling at that time, were 2-0 down in the match and, by all accounts, it could have been four or five for Hibs. But they managed to hang on, get themselves back into the match, force a draw and they haven’t looked back since.”
The draw in Edinburgh that day sparked a remarkable run in which Caley were beaten just once in 20 games. And although they wobbled a little after their League Cup exit, failing to win any of their next five matches as they were also knocked out of the William Hill Scottish Cup, they’ve bounced back to remain undefeated in their last five games.
That most recent run culminated in a victory over Highland rivals Ross County which, combined with a draw in the Tayside derby the following day, confirmed their place in the top half of the table, which remains the target for Pat Fenlon’s side, who will know only too well the problems Caley have caused successive Hibs teams over they years.
While Hibs may have enjoyed the upper-hand in the first two SPL clashes between the clubs, winning thanks to two Derek Riordan goals as Caley set up temporary home at Pittodrie as they began life in the top flight and then emerging triumphant at Easter Road, it took the Capital club until July 2011 to record their first win on the banks of the Moray Firth where they have lost eight times in 12 visits.
Hibs’ record at Easter Road is far more impressive, but even then they have won just five of their 11 home matches against Caley. That’s a record Wilson, who played in that first match between the clubs in September 2004, admits he’s at a loss to explain. He said: “I don’t know why it should be. It took Hibs a few games to even get a goal at the Caley Stadium. Whether it’s the weather, players not enjoying the long journey up, the atmosphere – or lack of it – inside the ground, I don’t know. Caley won the first game after we’d moved back to Inverness and it’s continued ever since. They’ve just never found it easy up there, despite having different teams and managers over the years.
“Even in Edinburgh, Caley have picked up a right few wins. As I said, I don’t know why but it does happen in football. It’s amazing how some clubs seem to have something over one particular team, one that they always like to play against.
“I’m sure, though, that Hibs will be going into this match looking to reproduce that superb 45 minutes of play which they showed against Caley earlier in the season – and to carry it on for the full 90 this time. The pressure is probably on them but as professionals you have to be able to handle such situations.”