Slowly but surely, Hibs are turning up the heat on Championship title rivals Dundee United. Neck-and-neck at the beginning of the month, the Easter Road outfit have ended it eight points clear of their main rivals.
After an impressive run of 14 matches unbeaten, the Tannadice side have not won in their last five while Neil Lennon’s players have shown a gritty determination, going into tricky away matches against Falkirk, Dumbarton and Queen of the South, and emerging with maximum points.
But, while Hibs may be living up to their billing as favourites to win the league, Lennon cautioned against anyone getting too carried away with 14 games still to be played.
The Hibs boss said: “We can only look after what we do. If we can extend the lead, then great, It’s a hard league – nothing is given to you. I said that to the players, that we have to earn the right to get out of this league. We don’t have a divine right.
“There will be peaks and troughs along the way. We are in a good spell with five wins in a row, but we are not getting carried away.”
Lennon did, though, concede that currently his side is making it increasingly harder for the chasing pack – with Morton emerging as the dark horses, now only three points behind second-placed United and with a game in hand.
He said: “We have to lose at least two or three games along the way for anyone to catch us and they’ve got to win their games so all we can do is keep looking ahead.”
As narrow as the latest victory may have been, Lennon was convinced it was one which was thoroughly merited although he did admit he’d have breathed a bit easier with a more flattering scoreline, the only goal of the game coming from the boot of John McGinn via a training ground routine.
While Queens assistant Dougie Anderson spotted the danger of McGinn’s late run from the middle of the park as James Keatings prepared to take what was Hibs’ first corner, none of his players was alert to the threat, the Scotland player meeting the deep cross to fire home with the aid of a deflection.
McGinn said: “We work hard on set-pieces every week. It was one that the gaffer and [first-team coach] Grant Murray decided to try. He spends a lot of time on the set-pieces so all credit to them.
“I think they read it, but it was too late. It was such a great ball from Keats that all I had to do was get my body over it and it took a wee nick on the way in”.
“It’s always pleasing when something you have worked on comes off,” agreed Lennon. “It was really well executed, a great ball from Keatings and John timed his run to perfection.”
While a one-goal lead has so often proved to be far from enough for Hibs in previous seasons, this time round it was, Anderson conceding that Queens hadn’t contrived a single clear-cut chance of their own despite throwing on both Derek Lyle and Lyndon Dykes in support of Stephen Dobbie in the closing stages in a desperate bid to salvage a point.
Lennon said: “You are never comfortable with 1-0 because anything can happen, a deflection, an own goal, a lack of concentration, whatever. I would have liked a more flattering scoreline.
“We had a great period after we scored in which we totally dominated, their goalkeeper [Lee Robinson] made two great saves. We flashed a couple of balls across the box. I would like us to be a bit more prolific in front of goal at times but we had good control of the game.
“I was really pleased with the performance. It was thoroughly deserved. Queens are a team in form, they scored three at Tannadice, went to Dumbarton played well and won so to have come here and win so convincingly, not in terms of the scoreline admittedly, was very pleasing.”
Lennon’s decision to start the game with his two wingers Martin Boyle and Chris Humphrey on the bench proved to be a talking point, Hibs going “narrow” with a diamond in midfield but the move, based on Palmerston Park’s plastic pitch, proved to be well justified.
He said: “It’s difficult to dribble on it. Rarely do you see people go on mazy, long runs on plastic pitches. You need to be close together because sometimes the ball can run away from you.
“I thought it was the right set-up and it proved to be the case.”
While Lennon seeks to add to his squad – pointing out that despite many feeling he already has great strength in depth he only had 19 fit players for the trip to Dumfries – McGinn believes Hibs fans have yet to see the best of those currently at his disposal.
The Scotland internationalist said: “The manager has got different methods to last season. It takes a bit of getting used to and we’ve had a lot of additions to the squad. We’ve got a strong squad and I think everything is coming into place.
“We are playing well and creating chances. We’re on a good run of form and momentum is the key at this stage of the season. There’s certainly more to come. In the final third, we have a lot of the ball and I think we can score more goals. Jason [Cummings] and Holty [Grant Holt] are still to hit their peak and there’s Martin [Boyle] and Brian [Graham] too.”
McGinn is looking forward to playing pain free following the surgery to remove a piece of calcified bone from his ankle which had been troubling him for a number of weeks before he was forced to have his operation.
He said: “All credit to the physios. I was champing at the bit to get back but I was told it would be 12 weeks, eight at the very earliest. It was only eight last week, so I was delighted to be back early.
“I’m pleased I got the surgery when I did. I feel as though I am fit. It doesn’t feel like I was out for that length of time.
“For a long time it was bugging me and now I feel like I am out the other side. I feel 22 rather than 32. I am feeling good and that can only benefit the team.”