Hibs’ impressive recent form has brought them widespread praise and hoisted them into genuine contention for second place in the Championship.
However, for all that things appear to be going swimmingly, they still haven’t shaken off a pack of pursuers who could yet derail their bid for a play-off spot.
The third-place Hibees sit level on points with Queen of the South, whom they visit a fortnight on Saturday, and just three points ahead of Falkirk, this Saturday’s opponents at Easter Road. Defeat at the hands of the on-form Bairns would leave Alan Stubbs’ men inside the play-off zone only by virtue of goal difference.
Nonetheless, James McDonaugh, the Falkirk No.2 and former Hibs youth coach, still believes it will be a formidable task for either his own side or Queens to be ahead of his old club come the end of the season.
“Hibs have probably got too much quality for us to catch them, but if we could challenge them for the rest of the season, that would be great,” said McDonaugh, who became Falkirk’s first-team coach after leaving his post as Hibs’ head of academy coaching in the summer. “The fact we’ve managed to stay in touch and are just three points behind Hibs is testament to our players and the manager. You never know in football, but Hibs have got real quality at the moment and it’s shining through.
“The back four are defending well; they’ve got a good balance in the middle of the pitch; the experienced players like Scott Robertson and Liam Craig are now coming to the fore; Scott Allan’s been outstanding for them; and obviously Jason Cummings, a player close to my own heart, is starting to produce goals for the first team, which I knew would be only a matter of time. They really have got quality going right throughout the spine of the team.”
Hibs have won six of their last nine matches, while Falkirk, creeping somewhat under the radar, have won six of their last seven. Buoyancy is evident in both camps, which certainly couldn’t be said of the opening couple of months of the season as they found themselves surprise bedfellows in the bottom half of the table. Hibs lost four of their first six Championship matches, while the Bairns’ only win in their first seven league games came, ironically, at Easter Road.
“Hibs started better than us – the league table tells us that – but over the piece both of us probably started a little bit slower than we would have liked,” said McDonaugh. “Hibs are ahead of us but probably a bit behind where they’d like to be, and we’ve just picked up in the last couple of months. Both teams seem to be hitting form at the right time, though, so it should be a really good game on Saturday.”
McDonaugh is all too aware that Easter Road has had a reputation as a happy hunting ground for most visiting teams. However, he believes the resurgence overseen by head coach Alan Stubbs this season has made a trip to Leith a far more daunting prospect.
“Easter Road is one of the hardest places to go just now,” he said. “Over the years, Hibs haven’t been happy with their home form, but the times I’ve seen them there this season, they’ve played some brilliant football and started to win games there. The Rangers game was obviously a standout game because it was a domination from start to finish, with some outstanding football.
“We’ve been there and won already this season, so we don’t fear them, but we go there with a massive amount of respect for Hibs and how they play. We know that if we go to Easter Road and handle it and play as well as we can, we could get the three points, but, by the same token, we’re well aware that we could go to Hibs and be on the end of the type of performance they produced against Rangers. That’s what they’re capable of.”
Although Falkirk are only three points adrift of third place, their focus is primarily on making sure of fourth place rather than trying to split the league’s big three clubs. They have already beefed up their squad this month with the addition of veteran midfielder Mark Kerr, defender Aaron Muirhead, a previous Championship winner with Partick Thistle, and strikers Taylor Morgan and John Baird.
“Hearts will certainly be in one of the top couple of places, and Rangers will recover their form, so I’d expect those two and Hibs to be in the top three come the end of the season,” said McDonaugh. “Then I’d say it’s probably between ourselves, Queen of the South, and possibly Raith Rovers and Dumbarton for fourth place. Raith and Dumbarton might be a few points behind us, but you can’t rule them out because we were down in that position not so long ago and managed to put together a run that got us into the mix.
“If they can put together a run like we have, then they’ll have a chance. It sums up how competitive the league is that there are so many teams in contention – it’s been a great league and I’m sure it will go right to end of the season. We’re just happy to have made up ground on the likes of Hibs and Queen of the South and put ourselves in a good position.
“Falkirk are a big club and have been a Premier League club in the past, but this season, because of Hearts, Hibs and Rangers being in the league, our main contest was always likely to be against the likes of Raith Rovers and Queen of the South. Fourth place is still our main aim and if we can get into the play-offs we’ll see what happens from there.
“We’ve already got good youngsters, so hopefully our new signings should add to the strength of the squad. We’ve added bodies and experience, so hopefully they can help the young ones we’ve got kick on in the last four months of the season.”