Hibs midfielder Dylan McGeouch today insisted the aim remains the same despite defeat by Rangers on Sunday.
Promotion via the play-offs has long been the goal for Alan Stubbs’ side although, like every other team, they were obliged to maintain a claim for the title itself as long as that remained possible.
Of course Hearts’ relentless charge at the head of the Championship made such a scenario all the more unlikely with each passing week, leaving Hibs, Rangers, Queen of the South and Falkirk to battle it out for the three play-off places with second spot the target as it would minimise the number of additional games to be played at the end of the season.
To that end the Edinburgh club remain in pole position albeit their advantage was halved by those goals from Lee Wallace and Kenny Miller on a day when Stubbs’ players, having already beaten Rangers three times in the league with a goals aggregate of 9-1, were hoping to complete a “whitewash” of an Ibrox outfit.
To add to that confidence Rangers were going into the game on the back of five successive draws, a run which had effectively ended their own slim hopes of overhauling Hearts.
The defeat also spelled the end of an impressive run by Hibs stretching back to the beginning of December, having clocked up 15 games unbeaten, with the last seven won.
But, McGeouch admitted, it’s now up to him and his team-mates to prove the setback to be no more than a blip – starting with Saturday’s trip to face Raith Rovers in Kirkcaldy.
The on-loan Celtic star said: “We’ve been on a decent run the last few months and while all good things have to come to an end at some point, it doesn’t make losing any less disappointing, especially at home in front of our own fans. But now we have to dust ourselves down, move on and focus on the next game which is the most important one, hopefully put in a strong finish to the end of the season and see where that takes us.
“You get into a habit of winning each week and picking up the three points and that’s got us into a strong position. We are still sitting in second place, it’s in our hands and we have to keep winning from now on.
“In effect nothing has changed. Hearts have had a great season and while everyone has been saying they wouldn’t be giving up hope of overhauling them until it was mathematically impossible I think we all recognised that is was only a mater of time. They started the season really well, got themselves out in front by a good amount of points and it’s obviously well done to them.
“But our aim throughout the season has been to win promotion. We can do it through the play-offs and that very much remains our goal although second place would be ideal.
“We’ve shown we are capable of stringing the results together over the past five or six months. It’s something like just two defeats in 23 matches but now it’s all about how we react to a disappointment and I’m sure we’ll bounce back just as we did after losing to Falkirk at the start of December.”
While Rangers remain third they do have a game in hand over Hibs that is against Hearts while Stubbs and his players will also be keeping a close eye on fourth-placed Queen of the South who can close the gap on them to five points with a win in their outstanding fixture against Raith at Stark’s Park tonight.
McGeouch, however, reiterated the mantra which has guided Hibs through recent successes – a Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk at Hampden is also on the horizon – of taking each game as it comes, of focusing purely on themselves and not worrying about events over which they have no control.
The 22-year-old did, though, admit he and his team-mates had looked a bit “flat” in the opening 45 minutes against Rangers, interim boss Stuart McCall having switched to a 3-5-2 formation following a midweek viewing of Hibs’ 4-0 hammering of the Glasgow club on their last visit to Easter Road. It was a move which stifled Hibs’ midfielders and snuffed out the threat of frontmen Dominique Malonga and Franck Dja Djedje almost entirely.
He said: “Obviously the changes were made because of what had happened in our three previous games against them. I thought there wasn’t much in it in the first half. We didn’t really pass the ball well, we played into their hands by playing long balls up to the front two who were up against three big guys in Marius Zaliukas, Lee McCulloch and Bilel Moshni who attack the ball really well. But in the second half we got the ball down, passed it and looked more comfortable going forward.
“We were pushing forward, creating a few opportunities and at 1-0 there’s always a chance if you keep plugging away.”
Referee Willie Collum, however, shattered any hopes Hibs may have had of snatching an equaliser, the whistler angering Stubbs by his failure to award a free-kick ten minutes from the end when Wallace went clattering into Paul Hanlon, decking the defender and leaving Miller to drill the loose ball beyond goalkeeper Mark Oxley.
Stubbs made his feelings known on the final whistle, claiming it was “a foul, not 90 per cent, not 99 per cent but 100 per cent,” a view shared by McGeouch who said: “I thought it was a free-kick myself. It killed us, we’d had a good opportunity at 1-0 with Franck, we had the momentum and as everyone knows when a team is only one goal ahead they can be caught. But that decision changed things as far as we were concerned.
“However, it’s in the past now.
“There’s nothing we can do about it but what we can do is go out this weekend and put in the performance which, hopefully, will earn us three points.”