Kevin Harper believes the steady improvement under Alan Stubbs over the past few months has resulted in Hibs emerging as the best football team in the Championship.
The former Easter Road striker has attended most of his old club’s games this season and insists that head coach Stubbs has overseen significant progress since taking over a club which was in turmoil following relegation.
Following an underwhelming start to the campaign in terms of results, Hibs are now unbeaten in five games in the Championship, while they have also beaten Premiership side Ross County and taken high-flying Dundee United to penalties in the League Cup.
While Stubbs’ side have received rave reviews for their three most recent performances against Livingston, Hearts and United, Harper is adamant that it has been clear for some time that Hibs are a team heading in the right direction.
“I could totally see where the manager was coming from when, even though they maybe weren’t getting results, he kept saying they were getting better,” he told the Evening News. “I’ve seen them from the start of the season and they have improved pretty much with every game. There have been some lows and there have been games where they’ve not played as well as they have in the last few games, but, over the piece, they’ve progressed really well in the short time that they’ve been under the manager’s stewardship.
“It’s been difficult for the manager because he was behind the eight-ball right from the start, but I think they’re starting to understand what he’s wanting from them. They seem to genuinely believe in what he’s telling them. There’s a real desire there. The players have bought into what the manager’s doing and clearly trust him. It looks as if everybody’s working for the team and wants to be in it, which I don’t think was necessarily the case last year.
“They’re playing attacking football and it’s a joy to watch. Over the past six weeks, they have played well against the likes of Dundee United, Hearts and Rangers and they’ve played well in other games, but just not taken their chances.”
Hibs were cheered off by their fans despite losing on penalties following an exhilarating 3-3 draw with the current Premiership leaders on Wednesday. “The United game was an exhibition – it was just a shame it wasn’t on television because it was a great showcase for Scottish football,” said Harper, 38, who played for Hibs in the 1990s. “Both sides played the right way and wanted to win the game. This was a Dundee United team that were third in the league at the time and is now top of the league, but Hibs held their own against them. I think that game just highlighted how far they’ve come on from the start of the season.”
Despite their impressive recent form, an inability to win consistently against the smaller clubs of the Championship has left Hibs in fourth place, a whopping 14 points behind leaders Hearts. With a trip to lowly Cowdenbeath this weekend, supporters are now looking for some genuine substance to the resurgence in the form of a steady pile-up of league points.
“It’ll be a really big test at Cowdenbeath on Saturday,” said Harper. “I think Hibs are the best footballing team in the division by a country mile, but sometimes it’s more about rolling your sleeves up and digging in to make sure you get a result. Hearts have done that – they’ve battered teams into submission. Throughout the season Hibs have played good football but haven’t scored enough goals to turn draws into wins.
“Over the piece I’ve been delighted with the way they’ve been playing. I think people forget that they’re a young, developing side and have had to adapt to the rough and tumble of the Championship. Over the past six-to-eight weeks, they have developed and shown that they’re getting mentally stronger and now know what it takes to get results. They’re only going to get better from here on in.
“I think the way Hibs are playing, they’ve still got an outside chance of winning the league. Hearts are well ahead, but they’ve still got to play Rangers three times and Hibs twice. These games can change things. For now, they’ve just got to concentrate on going on a run of winning games. They’ll definitely get into the play-offs at least and I don’t think any team would want to play them in the play-offs.”