Four points ahead, a game in hand and a vastly superior goal difference. The odds are stacked heavily in favour of St Johnstone in the race for a top-six finish, Hibs very much the under-dogs with their hopes of claiming a place in the upper half of the Scottish Premiership appearing to be fading fast.
Even the run-in to the split seems to favour the McDiarmid Park outfit. All five of their remaining games are against teams currently in the bottom six and three of them – including a visit from Terry Butcher’s side – at home, while the Capital club are “on the road” for three of their four outstanding fixtures, which encompass a derby against Hearts at Tynecastle and a visit from high-flying Aberdeen.
But, as far as winger Duncan Watmore is concerned, it’s very much a case of never say never for Butcher’s players, the on-loan Sunderland kid adamant he and his team-mates exert as much pressure as possible on Saints and to be in position should any cracks, however improbable that may look at the moment, appear.
As fate would have it, both Hibs and St Johnstone face Partick Thistle and Ross County respectively tomorrow, the two teams currently locked in the play-off position, the introduction of which, Watmore claims, means Saints may find their task of clinching sixth place a little harder than many might think given they also have Partick and St Mirren, only a point ahead of Thistle and County, to face.
The 20-year-old said: “The teams at the bottom will be scrapping as well. They aren’t just going to let anyone walk over them. You never go into any football match thinking this team is lower or higher, that it’s going to be easier or harder.”
Watmore accepts Hibs’ no-scoring draw against League Cup finalists Inverness Caley on the night a blunder by Dundee United goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak gifted St Johnstone all three points at Tannadice has made the target of top six almost mission impossible.
As loaded as the dice may seem, Watmore insisted a glimmer of hope remains, adamant Hibs’ trip to McDiarmid Park a week tomorrow – which had taken on the appearance of “winner takes all” before this week’s events – could yet prove pivotal to the aspirations of both clubs.
He said: “It’s not the best. Games are running out, but we have to keep fighting and hoping. Strange things do happen in football. We’d be kicking ourselves if we took our eye off the ball and found ourselves unable to take advantage of any twists or turns there might yet be. Yes, if might be difficult, but why shouldn’t we try to win all four of our games and see where that takes us.
“We’ve got St Johnstone within that run and, if they go on and win every game they’ve got left, it is out of our hands. But if we can put in some wins, put pressure on them, you never know what might happen.”
Watmore conceded Hibs will have to do better at Firhill than they did in Inverness, an early Ryan McGivern shot which was finger-tipped over by Caley goalkeeper Dean Brill the closest they came to scoring, although they looked a lot more solid in defence as Ben Williams enjoyed his first clean sheet since the end of December.
Having observed that his side had “got it right at one end and wrong at the other” in their 3-3 draw against Motherwell a few days earlier, Butcher suffered another night of frustration as they again got it right at one end and wrong at the other, never looking like conceding but, sadly, totally lacking any cutting edge up front.
Watmore said: “Having scored three at the weekend, you are hoping you can push on and score a couple more, but it was a scrappy game, difficult to play in, and we never got the ball down enough to play as we know we can. We looked very solid defensively, but we didn’t have much attack-wise.”
Butcher described Watmore’s return from a foot injury which had sidelined him following his impressive debut against Raith Rovers as one of the few bright notes from a turgid match, one the Hibs boss labelled “brutal”, and now the youngster is looking forward to doing all he can to re-ignite his side’s top-six push.
He said: “It’s been a very frustrating time for me. Everyone had been very kind with their comments about how I’d played against Raith. It gave me a lot of confidence and I was looking to build on that performance.
“But I picked up a foot injury during the game. At first I thought it wasn’t that bad, a case of sitting out a couple of days training and then I’d be all right for the next game.
“Then it kept dragging and dragging. It turned out I’d suffered bruising to three or four bones in my left foot and there was also swelling in the tendon. I went back to Sunderland for a couple of weeks as they wanted a look and give me a bit of treatment, but I’ve been back here training and now I feel good.
“Injuries are part of the game, people have had much worse than me. It was only thee or four weeks, but it was annoying as I’d come up here to get first-team experience only to find myself out almost right away. So I was really excited to play again at Inverness. I’ve lost a little bit of sharpness, but I felt even the 70 minutes I played made me a little bit sharper.
“Hopefully, it won’t take long for me to get back to the levels I was at – and hopefully as a team we can kick on and get ourselves into the top six.”