Had Hull City boss Steve Bruce had his way, Mark Oxley would have been in the frame to face Liverpool at Anfield tomorrow, leaving Hibs with a goalkeeping crisis ahead of the second Edinburgh derby of the season.
On seeing Steve Harper join Scotland goalkeeper Allan McGregor on the Tigers’ casualty list after suffering a serious arm injury, Bruce’s first thought was to recall the on-loan Oxley from Easter Road – his remarks causing more than a few worries in the Capital.
Bruce, however, turned out to be wrong, the cross-border transfer rules prohibiting Oxley from returning south until the end of his six-month stay in Edinburgh, one which Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs will no doubt seek to extend when the time comes.
But, amid the uncertainty as both clubs pored over the small print governing such situations, 24-year-old Oxley insisted his entire attention remained on preparing himself for Sunday’s visit of near-neighbours Hearts.
He said: “Hull have had a couple of bad injuries to goalkeepers and I wasn’t sure if I could be called back until our goalkeeping coach Alan Combe called me to say they couldn’t – although since I hadn’t been in their squad at the start of the season I thought it would be hard for them to do it.
“I played against Liverpool at Anfield in the FA Cup last season when I was on loan with Oldham – it’s a brilliant ground to play at especially when it’s full. I enjoyed it and I’m sure the Hull lads will be going there tomorrow buzzing after their draw against Arsenal at the Emirates. From what I saw on television, they were unlucky not to win it.
“But, while it would have been good to be involved, my focus was, and has remained, on Sunday, playing Hearts and getting the three points.”
That might be easier said than done with Robbie Neilson’s side top of the Championship, 14 points ahead of Hibs with their unbeaten record leading some to speculate as to whether they might manage to negotiate the entire season unscathed.
Oxley, though, insisted no-one at Easter Road was interested in entering such a debate, Stubbs’ players intent only on looking after themselves. The Yorkshireman did concede, though, that any team boasting the record Hearts currently enjoy couldn’t help but approach each match with confidence sky-high.
However, he pointed out, morale among him and his team-mates was hardly rock-bottom, Hibs having recovered from an indifferent start to the season to now be on a run of five matches unbeaten – one which contains an impressive victory over Rangers at Ibrox.
On a personal note, he’s more than happy that three of those games have seen him keep a clean sheet.
He said: “I think in the last few weeks we’ve been going into games knowing we are capable of getting the results we deserve. As a group, we knew if we stuck together, kept performing the way we were, then the results would come and that’s proved to be the case. Keeping a clean sheet gives you that base to build on whereas earlier in the season we were playing well but were a bit unlucky to be losing or not winning.”
To that end, Oxley firmly believes the first derby, won 2-1 by Hearts at Tynecastle, falls into that category.
He said: “I think we matched them for most of the game. We missed that first-half penalty, which can happen in any match, but if we scored it and we’d have had something to build on. Hearts scored a decent goal and then got another only a few minutes later, which more or less killed things off. That’s something we have looked to improve – that, if we go a goal down you don’t have to go gung-ho and try to get an equaliser right away.” And although that first derby was lost, Oxley insisted Stubbs’ players can take confidence from their performance that day and recent results, culminating in that 4-0 win away to Livingston.
He said: “I was pretty new to football up here back then and perhaps I didn’t realise how big the derby was, but now I am settled in I’m enjoying my time here and I know just how much these games mean not only to the fans but the players.
“We’ll be going into the game with no fear, knowing that we can match Hearts or any other team in the Championship.
“Of course, it was brilliant to go to Ibrox, play as we did, to score three goals and win but, at the end of the day, we got the same three points at Livingston. Winning there took us into fourth place and into the play-off positions, and that’s been our aim – to quietly go about our business and climb the table.”
Oxley admitted Hibs have found it tough when opposition teams have turned up at Easter Road and “parked the bus,” a scenario you’d hardly imagine on Sunday with Hearts determined to secure another win. Adamant he’ll leave it up to others to discuss whether Hearts are favourites and if they can keep their unbeaten run going to next spring, he said: “We are confident. We are at home, our fans have been brilliant and, if they get behind us and we turn in the sort of performance we know we can produce, then we are well capable of winning.”
Hibs, however, go into the match hampered by injury – striker Farid El Alagui is out for months with a ruptured Achilles tendon, Jordon Forster has been sidelined with a broken foot and his fellow defender Liam Fontaine has been battling a thigh problem, leaving Stubbs at the beginning of the week with just four fit defenders and only one of them, Paul Hanlon, a recognised centre-back.
While the situation is disappointing, Oxley believes Stubbs has the squad to cope, saying: “Lads have come in and taken their chance. Callum Booth came into central defence against Livingston and showed what he is capable of. Danny Handling was another.
“That’s the benefit of having the squad we have and everyone is raring to go on Sunday to get the result we want.”