Hibs and Motherwell appear to be mirror images of each other this season. The Edinburgh club’s home record – the best in the SPL – exactly reflects the form displayed by Stuart McCall’s outfit on the road: five matches won, two drawn and just one lost.
There is virtually nothing between the two as they prepare to meet at Easter Road tomorrow, with both sitting on 27 points, having each scored that number of goals. The Lanarkshire club enjoy a wafer-thin advantage, having conceded two fewer than Pat Fenlon’s side.
Although Hibs beat Motherwell 4-0 at Fir Park earlier in the season, midfielder David Wotherspoon, scorer of the opening goal that Friday night, insists the stats merely highlight the highly competitive nature of this season’s SPL, with just ten points separating the top eight clubs after almost half of the campaign.
Week after week, eyebrow-raising results have been thrown up, but, according to Wotherspoon, too much is often read into them. He conceded that, while on the face of it Hibs’ win at Fir Park would suggest he and his team-mates had romped it, the outcome had actually been far less certain.
He said: “I think most games we’ve had with Motherwell have been entertaining – there’s certainly been quite a few goals in them in the last two or three seasons, but, to be honest, I think winning by four goals, as much as you’d take that in any game, was perhaps a bit flattering to us. We played well, but they had a shot which most people thought was over the line and then missed a penalty. Both incidents came at crucial times in the game, but we were clinical in our finishing.”
The perceived injustices visited upon his side will no doubt form part of manager Stuart McCall’s team talk before hostilities commence, but Wotherspoon believes there’s incentive aplenty for both teams, with the chance for he and his team-mates to atone for last weekend’s defeat in Inverness by leapfrogging their visitors while it presents an opportunity for Motherwell to open up a gap on their hosts.
However, Wotherspoon was equally adamant a noisy home crowd can help sway the outcome in Hibs’ favour, noting a growing number of home fans within recent crowds at Easter Road, culminating in the biggest gate of the season so far for the Scottish Cup win over Hearts, courtesy of his fourth goal of the season.
Wotherspoon said: “It was a great feeling to score the winner, but when it went in you couldn’t hear a thing because of the crowd’s reaction. The atmosphere they created was fantastic. It was a first experience of the derby for some of the boys and they thoroughly enjoyed it.
“The fans deserved that day after all they have been through. We know it’s been hard for some to come back after what’s happened in the last couple of seasons, but most of them did and each home game we’ve noticed more have come along.
“To be honest, they’ve been right behind us from the start. We’ve been doing better and the more that turn up, the better because the boys really appreciate the support.”
Having ended last season second bottom, Pat Fenlon’s side took everyone by surprise with their impressive start to the season, a factor which, as Wotherspoon agreed, has become something of a double-edged sword, with setbacks such as that suffered last weekend jumped upon by some as proof that “it’s the same old Hibs”.
Wotherspoon said: “We’ve always said we are not the finished article. You have to remember where we’ve come from. Last season we only took 33 points, already we have got 27 which is surely a sign of progress. Obviously we want to get many, many more so we have to show the fight and desire to bounce back from the disappointment of Inverness.
“We believe a club of this stature should be in the top six at least, but it is up to us to ensure we achieve those goals.”
While Hibs’ rise has been under-pinned by that home record, Motherwell’s has been defined by their away form. McCall has undoubtedly been left exasperated at their inability to bring that form to Fir Park, the latest setback coming in midweek as they were knocked out of the Cup by Aberdeen in a fourth round replay.
It’s a situation with which Wotherspoon can empathise, as much of Hibs’ troubles last season came from the fact they managed to win just two SPL games on their own turf. The 22-year-old said: “We spent months trying to find answers as to how that should be and no doubt Stuart McCall will be tearing his hair out, but these things happen in football. There are always different things coming your way and you have to try to deal with it. We’ve started pretty well, particularly at home. Look anywhere and you’ll invariably find the teams enjoying any measure of success have a good home record. We’ve managed that so far but we’d like to see our results away from Easter Road begin to pick up as well.”
Wotherspoon believes Hibs will receive a shot in the arm with the imminent return of skipper James McPake, and Gary Deegan, while Tim Clancy’s comeback is also not too far away, with injury having robbed Fenlon of the influential trio for a number of weeks. Wotherspoon said: “We’ve managed to deal with them being out reasonably well, but we’ve got a lot of games coming up and you want to have as many players available as possible. Having James, Gary and Tim back will add strength in depth to the squad again.”