There’s probably no better way of highlighting the dramatic changes which have taken place under Pat Fenlon than the fact that only four of the Hibs side likely to start against Kilmarnock on Sunday lined up the last time the Capital club travelled to Rugby Park.
Hibs enjoyed a 3-1 victory that day at the end of February, a much-needed win as their battle to avoid the spectre of relegation became more desperate by the week. A well-taken double by Tom Soares and a spectacular strike from Roy O’Donovan secured the three points, but today that pair are long gone.
So, too, are no less than seven others who were part of Fenlon’s squad, having departed in the intervening period as Fenlon has begun the onerous task of rebuilding Hibs into the club he and thousands of fans want them to be.
With skipper James McPake suspended after picking up a red card last week, when Hibs take to the pitch on Sunday only Paul Hanlon, Jorge Claros, Lewis Stevenson and Leigh Griffiths who began Hibs’ last match in Ayrshire are set to do so again, although Ivan Sproule, Eoin Doyle and David Wotherspoon, named among the substitutes on that previous occasion, remain at Easter Road.
February’s trip, of course, was made against that backdrop of a battle to beat the drop, Fenlon having drafted in a raft of players, the majority of whom arrived on loan, with the sole intention of securing Hibs’ future in the SPL, a target which was finally achieved only on the penultimate day of the league season.
Although they’d only spent a few months in a green-and-white shirt, the majority were off-loaded at the end of the season, making way for yet another influx of new faces as Fenlon began to build for the longer-term, the foundations for which have been laid with a start to the season which remains solid enough despite the recent disappointment of just three points taken from their last five matches.
Last weekend’s defeat by Motherwell was particularly keenly felt, Fenlon’s players having led through a Doyle double until the hour mark when, inexplicably, they handed the initiative to their opponents and ended up losing 3-2, a result which robbed them of the opportunity to return to second place in the table although, despite the latest setback, they remain very much in touch at the top end. And that, insisted defender Hanlon today, was evidence of the competitiveness of the current campaign with just eight points separating Motherwell in second from Hearts in ninth.
The 22-year-old said: “Everyone is beating everyone else at the moment, you look at the fixtures every week and it’s not easy to call many of the results. I don’t think there’s too much between most of the teams and, as such, it makes it hard for any club to find the sort of consistency they are looking for. The good thing for us is that, despite our last couple of results, we haven’t lost much ground on the teams ahead of us, a couple of back-to-back wins and we’ll be right up there again.”
Hanlon agrees, however, that what Hibs’ recent run of disappointing results has done is keep those clubs below them much closer than he and his team-mates would have liked, particularly given their impressive start to the season.
He said: “What we knew when it all kicked off was that we needed to improve and things had been going quite well for us. We’ve hit a run where things aren’t going quite so well but we’re confident of getting back to winning ways.
“After where we’d finished in the previous two seasons I think we’d have been relatively happy with top six, but I think with Rangers not in the league everyone believes that they are capable of finishing second.
“I think we have to be looking for the same, but first things first, we want to distance ourselves from the teams below us, even although we aren’t too far away from the clubs ahead of us.”
If some may say the quality this season is lower than in previous years, Hanlon believes there’s plenty to keep the fans interested. He said: “Look at Dundee United and Inverness drawing 4-4 last week or our match with Motherwell – there was plenty of excitement and both were a good advert for the SPL.
“Having said that, though, I’d agree the Hibs fans could probably have done without the excitement having ended up on the wrong end of a five-goal thriller. We know that if we are two goals up, especially at home where we’d been pretty happy with our record, there’s no way we should lose from that position.
“We’ve obviously spoken about it since and know that in the last half-hour we couldn’t get hold of the ball. We’d clear it and it simply came straight back at us.
“We were struggling to get up the pitch and we know we should have enough composure to get hold of the ball and keep it away from the opposition because, without it, they cannot score. I’m sure it won’t happen again.”
Like Hibs and most other teams, Kilmarnock have enjoyed mixed results and currently sit five points behind Fenlon’s side. Again, Hanlon is anticipating nothing less than a tough match, pointing out how Kenny Shiels’ players went to Pittodrie last weekend and emerged with a 2-0 win against Aberdeen.
Remembering how Killie won at Celtic Park earlier in the season, he said: “Again, it shows how tight this league is.
“I think everyone expects Celtic to go on and take the title and the fact they don’t have any Champions League matches for a while now will let them concentrate on trying to pull away.
“It’s a case of trying to keep as close to them as you can.
“We’re in the mix at the moment and we want to stay there, but going to Kilmarnock is always tough and we don’t expect it to be any other way on Sunday.”
As hard as it might be, Hanlon acknowledged he and his team-mates can make life easier for themselves by conceding fewer goals, with six lost in their last two matches.
He said: “We’re unhappy at that, too, because we’d kept clean sheets in our two games prior to those matches.
“It’s hard to put our finger on what’s gone wrong but it we stop conceding as many goals we’ll pick up more points as we’ve got the guys who can score at the other end.”