Hibs skipper James McPake today declared the historic all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final as “nothing” compared to retaining the Easter Road outfit’s SPL status.
The looming showdown with Hearts at Hampden has dominated the headlines and been virtually the sole topic of conversation since the Capital sides defeated Aberdeen and Celtic to set up the first such final in 116 years.
But just as boss Pat Fenlon has demanded there be no talk of the May 19 showdown, McPake firmly believes surviving in the top flight is of greater importance, describing Hibs’ current position of second bottom of the table as “criminal.”
The Hibees’ fight to beat the drop became slightly tougher over the weekend as their miserable home form – just one league win in 14 months – continued, Dean Shiels’ penalty two minutes before half-time ensuring a tenth SPL defeat of the season on home turf.
The loss made relegation rivals Dunfermline’s point from their clash with St Mirren in Paisley 24 hours beforehand all the more significant, trimming Hibs’ advantage to six points.
Although there are only four matches left, leaving time apparently rapidly running out for Jim Jefferies’ players, McPake insisted there was little margin for error as far as he and his team-mates are concerned, pointing out that with the Pars again playing the day before this weekend, the gap could be a mere three points when Hibs themselves travel along the M8 to face Danny Lennon’s St Mirren.
Jefferies was an interested onlooker, as was Lennon, as Killie held on for victory, and McPake conceded that he and his players, having been anchored to the foot of the table for months on end, will now see a glimmer of hope, the slightest of chances to pull off a great escape.
The former Livingston defender said: “Of course they’ll see a bit of hope, they’ve gained a point on us. But they still need two wins, perhaps three because of our superior goal difference but that can turn.
“Games may be running out but that point could prove to be massive if we do not get our heads right and get the victories we need to keep us in this league. There’s no way a club of this size should be fighting for its SPL status at this stage of the season but just being a big club doesn’t give you any divine right.”
While admitting the weekend’s result had been a “massive comedown” following the euphoria of the cup semi-final win against the Dons seven days earlier, McPake was adamant it hadn’t been difficult to push that matter to the back of the mind and insisted that, despite the defeat by Killie, Hibs’ performance against the Ayrshire outfit shouldn’t be overlooked.
He said: “We cannot talk about the cup because we are in a bad position, second bottom of the league albeit we are six points clear with four games remaining. But things can quickly turn. If we are thinking about the cup and have that in our heads then we’ll get a shock because we’ll be going to Inverness for our last game of the season either behind Dunfermline or needing to win to stay in this division.
“For this club that’s criminal. I’ve said from day one a club this size has to be in the SPL, there’s no doubt about it. The cup final is nothing compared to staying in the SPL for me.”
The backdrop may be somewhat gloomy, but McPake claimed it wasn’t as bleak as some may suggest, saying: “People shouldn’t forget that we could have scored three, four or five goals against Kilmarnock but unfortunately we couldn’t get the ball in the net.
“They’ve had one shot at goal all game, and that was a penalty. We created chance after chance, won corner after corner but just couldn’t score, that’s football unfortunately.”
Having said that, McPake admitted that as a centre-back he could appreciate the quality of Kilmarnock’s defending in a game which, in essence, carried little in the way of reward for Kenny Shiels’ side, well clear of the threat of relegation.
He said: “Killie deserve credit for the way they defended, they were throwing themselves in front of everything. They also enjoyed a bit of luck but sometimes when you are defending as well as they did then you deserve that bit of luck.
“When you look at where they are in the table, they didn’t seem to have much to play for but it looked as if it was a cup final to them while I thought we had a right go. We’d no complaints about their penalty but unfortunately it was enough for them to win.
“In the second half I thought they played somewhat the opposite of the way they usually play. They had the lead and sat a bit deeper and rightly so. They were not as open, they defended well, got a clean sheet and the win but I felt we deserved at least a point.
“Last week we thought about the cup on the Saturday night having beaten Aberdeen then it was put out of our minds as we prepared for Kilmarnock. Now it’s a case of doing the same this week, getting ourselves ready for St Mirren on Sunday.”
Dunfermline face Aberdeen at East End Park the previous day but, McPake confessed, he’s in two minds as to whether or not that gives Fenlon’s players any sort of advantage. He said: “We were buzzing up at Inverness the other week because we knew Hearts had beaten them on the Saturday.
“But personally I don’t think it makes any difference. It could be the gap is down to three points by the time we play so we have to be professional and look to win every game regardless of whether or not we know their result.”