Don’t tell Maurice Malpas, but Michael Nelson believes going back to front is the way to take Hibs forward.
Easter Road No.2 Malpas recently hit back at those who brand the more direct style of play demanded by Terry Butcher as ‘route one football’, insisting that’s not the way the new management team want to play. Getting as many crosses into the opposition penalty area to feed the strikers as possible underpins their philosophy and is one which, they insist, will result in the figure in the ‘goals for’ column steadily increasing – so long as the players share their belief.
But while supporters will inevitably look to £200,000 striker James Collins and his fellow hitmen to do so, Nelson firmly believes those at the back have their part to play in front of goal – as shown by the Boxing Day victory over Ross County, in which he and fellow defender Jordon Forster were the heroes, each claiming their first strike in a green-and-white shirt.
Those goals in Dingwall mean Hibs have now scored more of their 12 Premiership goals “on the road” than on home turf, a statistic they’ll be attempting to alter when Nelson’s old club Kilmarnock return to the Capital tomorrow, fresh from their 4-0 hammering of Hearts at Tynecastle.
The visit of Killie presents Butcher’s players with one last opportunity to improve another damning stat – the fact they’ve only won one league game at Easter Road this season or, to put it another way, just two in the whole of 2013. But having built solid foundations in recent weeks – just two goals conceded in six matches since Butcher took control – Nelson, who was left nursing a suspected partial dislocation of his left shoulder following the trip north, insisted he and his team-mates can end the year on a high.
He said: “It was great to win against Ross County. It was massively important that myself and Jordon chipped in with a goal each to take a bit of pressure off the strikers. Scoring goals isn’t all about the front two – they have to come from throughout the team. We’ve been saying lately we haven’t scored from set pieces, so it was terrific to get two from Paul Cairney’s corners and hopefully that will continue.”
Having two defenders score allied to a clean sheet made it a day to remember for Hibs back four and goalkeeper Ben Williams, as Nelson admitted. The 33-year-old said: “As defenders, you go out to keep clean sheets and we’ve been fortunate to keep quite a few in recent weeks. Ben keeps reminding us of all the statistics, how many we have conceded in how many games.
“It’s only two in six with a trip to Celtic Park in the mix, which is good. But we won’t get carried away. We won’t be boasting about it, as it’s our job to prevent the opposition from scoring if we can. And if we can nick a goal or two at the other end, then that’s even better.”
Unbeaten so far in the hectic programme of festive fixtures, the target is now to continue that run ahead of the “big one”, the New Year’s Day derby against Hearts – although Nelson insisted there’s no game bigger than tomorrow’s, with Hibs, depending on how St Johnstone fare against Dundee United, having the chance to creep into the top six should they win.
To do so, however, Nelson admitted Butcher’s back four will have to focus first and foremost on their defensive duties – the priority being to shut out the top flight’s leading scorer of all-time, Rugby Park hitman Kris Boyd, who scored for the fourth game in succession, with his double against the Jambos taking his tally for the season to 11.
Nelson said: “Kris is doing well, but there are a lot of good strikers in this league. We’ll just go out to do our job and hopefully keep him out. We couldn’t have set ourselves up any better than with that win against Ross County. Now we are hoping for another win, because we want to get as many points as we can over the Festive period.
“We want to win in front of our own fans. We’ll take our recovery time, prepare as always, and hopefully Sunday will take care of itself.”
Butcher dedicated the win against Ross County to 18-year-old Hibs midfielder David Paul, who was found dead in his bed in the family home last Sunday morning. Both sides and their supporters paid tribute with a minute’s silence as requested by the Hibs players but, as Nelson agreed, tomorrow promises to be another day of high emotion.
He said: “I’m one of the newset through the door, so I didn’t know David as well as some of the boys, but it’s hard, especially for some of the young boys. They have never experienced the loss of a friend or a team-mate. I’ve been unfortunate enough to have been through it once before.
“While at Hartlepool we lost a young boy Michael Maidens [a 20-year-old midfielder who was killed in a car crash in 2007] and you try to look back on how you coped with that, what you did at the time and how we tried to look after the lads that were feeling it at the time.
“That’s what we are trying to do now – not just the senior boys but the management, the coaching staff, everyone. James McDonaugh [Hibs’ head of academy coaching] treats the boys like his own. He’s very protective of them. It was an emotional day when we came in at the beginning of the week – it’s something that hits everyone no matter how old you are, but more so the young boys.
“Everyone deals with it in their own way – there’s no right or wrong way. But it’s important that however each individual does it we offer support to pull them through. That’s gone on all week and I am sure it will continue, especially over the next game or two. I am sure his death will be marked again tomorrow, and rightly so. You feel for his closest friends, and more so for his family. We didn’t need any motivation, any talks, any building up for the Ross County game. Everyone knew why we were going out there.”