PAT FENLON’S January signings have already brought a renewed sense of optimism to Easter Road, but today skipper James McPake insisted the Hibs support have yet to see the best from the club’s new signings.
A William Hill Scottish Cup win over Kilmarnock followed by a no-scoring draw against Aberdeen represents a promising start for Fenlon’s new-look side, although he and his players are well aware they remain embroiled in a nerve-shredding relegation battle with SPL basement outfit Dunfermline.
McPake admitted that’s the way it’s likely to remain for the forseeable future at least but he feels Hibs can go from strength-to-strength as he and his new team-mates find their feet in the Capital.
Insisting he wasn’t surprised at the way in which the new arrivals appear to have gelled almost immediately, the former Livingston star said: “I can’t say I’m really surprised. Most of us played in the Kilmarnock game and when you get that first win the pressure of being a new player is off. At the start, you want to make a good impression but I think to say we have gelled after two games is a bit premature. For me, we will hopefully see the quality the manager has brought in maybe a month down the line.”
Like the majority of Fenlon’s captures, McPake has arrived on loan, in his case from Coventry City but, while he can see merit in the argument that along with the likes of Sky Blues team-mate Roy O’Donovan, Wolves defender Matt Doherty, Norwich youngster George Francomb and Tom Soares of Stoke City, he has something to prove, the 27-year-old insisted that’s how he approaches every match.
He said: “Everyone who has come in wants to do well. You look around the place, the training ground, the stadium and you realise this is a big club. That excites you and you want to do well but I think every player has a point to prove, you want to show you are a good player whether it is at Coventry or up here with Hibs. But I understand what you mean, you have the burden coming into a new club of ‘is he any good’ and you want to show the manager was right to sign you.”
After being forced to sit out last weekend’s game with the Dons after being sent off on his debut against Rangers at Ibrox, McPake is naturally desperate to get back into action in tomorrow’s clash with SPL leaders Celtic and now champions in all but name following the ten-point deduction imposed on the Rangers following their dramatic plunge into administration which has dominated the headlines all week.
His absence, and that of Paul Hanlon as he also served a one-match ban, forced Fenlon into fielding into virtually an entirely new defence against Aberdeen but, as in the previous week, they managed a shut-out, the first time Hibs had recorded back-to-back clean sheets in a year.
That, insisted McPake, provides the platform on which future success can follow although he readily accepts the challenge presented by a rampant Celtic side – one which boasts 17 straight wins in domestic competition – is a step up to that faced over the course of the past couple of weeks.
McPake also shares boss Fenlon’s view that events at Ibrox will have no bearing on tomorrow’s match, convinced Neil Lennon’s players won’t be distracted in the slightest from their aim of winning.
He said: “Celtic will come as they and Rangers always do. Their fans expect them to win every game regardless of whether they are four points clear or 14. The Celtic players will be looking to maintain their wining streak so what has happened through the week won’t have any effect on them.
“They’ll also want to keep winning because if, say, they were to take the title by eight points, people would say Rangers would have won it had they not had the points taken away from them. So whether they are coming here top of the league, as they are, or still chasing Rangers, the mentality will still be the same.”
McPake and his fellow defenders can expect a testing afternoon, but the Hibs stopper insisted he was relishing the challenge. He said: “As defenders, clean sheets are our bread and butter, you are proud coming off the pitch if you’ve done that.
“We’ve had two on the bounce and obviously we’d be well chuffed if we could make it three tomorrow. First and foremost, that’s the aim because we know we have the quality in the team to get us goals.
“Celtic are a very good side, they have quality throughout their team. They are on the run they are for a reason. It will be a tough game, but one we are looking forward to.”
McPake knows full well that depending on the outcome of Dunfermline’s game against Inverness Caley at East End Park today Hibs could go into tomorrow’s match sitting bottom of the pile. But, he insisted, Fenlon’s players must have the mental strength to deal with the situation they find themselves in whatever twists and turns it might take.
He said: “Obviously, we’ll know how they have got on before we play and I think you’d be lying if you tried to say you didn’t look at the table, count up the points and look at the games coming up. But, at the moment, we have to concentrate on ourselves and say things are firmly in our hands although I expect Dunfermline would say exactly the same.
“But we are looking to get ourselves up the table. I think it would be unacceptable come the end of the season if a club like Hibs was to finish second bottom. We are looking to catch the teams above us, to drag them back in to it. This is a massive week for us with our game in hand against Motherwell on Wednesday, but first things first, we’ve got enough to focus on tomorrow.”