Darren McGregor expects Hibs to thrive amid the pressure as their bid to claim promotion at the third time of asking enters its most critical phase.
With just nine games to play, the Easter Road side are six points clear of second-placed Falkirk with a game in hand. They are red-hot favourites to justify their status as the big guns of the division by ending it on top and securing their much-coveted return to the Premiership.
With Dundee United having effectively been removed from the title race over the past week, the most obvious potential dangers to their hopes of going up appear to be complacency and pressure.
McGregor does not anticipate the latter becoming an issue. Although aware of the potential repercussions if Hibs were to enter a slump at this point in the season, the centre-back believes a burning desire among the squad to get back to where they believe they belong will pull them over the line. “You’re always nervous,” he said ahead of today’s home match against Dumbarton. “I think nerves and apprehension are good going into a game because it shows you care and keeps you on edge. Sometimes in pre-season games you can lose that edge and go through the motions a bit so for me I like having a bit of nerves going into a game.
“There are guys who have been here for the full three seasons in the Championship and are anxious to get out of this league. We’re well aware of the anxieties and stresses of the fans, and it’s up to us to go out there and put in a really good performance against Dumbarton to keep the morale high and march on.
“One bad game can snowball into a couple. That’s what happened to us in February. If you have one draw and then another draw and a couple of things don’t go your way, then all of a sudden things turn on their head, so we’re well aware that this cushion could soon disappear. We can almost sense the finish line but we need to make sure we stay professional.”
In recent seasons, Hibs have grown accustomed to winning high-profile matches, while also being susceptible to taking their eye off the ball in lower-key games.
One such match comes along today at home to the Sons, a game sandwiched in between last week’s much-hyped showdown with fading title rivals United and next weekend’s Easter Road clash with Falkirk, the team who have emerged as their likeliest challengers after a strong run of form since the turn of the year.
McGregor knows it is imperative that Hibs don’t come unstuck today after producing such a strong performance to triumph 1-0 when the heat was on them at Tannadice a week past Friday. “We’ve put ourselves in a great position by beating Dundee United – I think that was pivotal,” he said. “But now the Dumbarton game is just as important and they’re coming off a great result against Raith Rovers. Some people might think Dumbarton at home is relatively easy for us but we’ve come up short in games like this before so we’re well aware of the complacency element. We’re into the final straight of the season and we need to keep the consistency levels high.
“Until it’s mathematically confirmed that we’re promoted, then we have to approach every game as if it’s our biggest of the season. There’s no doubt about it, if we can win our next three games [against Dumbarton, Falkirk and Morton] we’ll be in a really healthy position.”
Last week’s win at Tannadice halted a four-game run without a league win for Hibs. McGregor is hopeful that getting back on the victory trail in such a key match will ensure his side power on to achieve their objective. “We let ourselves down a bit in February but the United game has set the benchmark for the rest of the season,” he said. “We need to keep the levels as high as they were on Friday. If we falter against Dumbarton, it’ll feel like all the hard work against Dundee United has been wasted. This is now the most important game. It’s a free shot for Dumbarton. That’s the case for a lot of teams coming to Easter Road. But if we beat Dumbarton, it’s another game down and we keep the gap.”
Hibs will be without top scorer Jason Cummings after he received a second yellow card and was duly sent off against United for punching the ball into the net while his team led 1-0. McGregor insists his team-mate’s instinctive misdemeanour has already been forgotten about – but only because Hibs won. “If we’d have drawn or lost that game, I don’t think he’d have got out the changing room – but that’s Jase,” smiled McGregor. “He’ll do something unbelievable, and then the flip side of that is that he’ll get himself sent off in probably our most important game of the season. Nothing was really said to him after the game because we had won. That’s the great thing about football – when you win, you can paper over a lot of cracks.”