Kevin Thomson believes Aberdeen are the team to beat for second place in the Scottish Premiership table – but he sees no reason why Hibs can’t be the side to do it.
The Easter Road midfielder’s opinion will come in for some serious examination when Pat Fenlon’s players and the Dons go head-to-head in Edinburgh at the weekend, the 28-year-old agreeing the clash will give him and his team-mates the chance to assess exactly where they stand.
At the moment the Hibees sit fifth in the table – two points adrift of Saturday’s opponents and a further two behind Inverness Caley and Motherwell, who are currently contesting that runners-up spot – with all but the most fervent of fans conceding the title as a “given” for champions Celtic, who are already out in front.
But after what everyone at Easter Road admits was a miserable start to the season which put Fenlon’s players under pressure and had the manager’s own position called into question, Hibs have lost just one of their last nine games and go into the weekend showdown bolstered by a fighting performance which saw them take a well-deserved point from Celtic.
The arrival of Aberdeen, who are expected to bring more than 2000 fans to town, marks the start of what could be a telling eight days for Fenlon’s troops, the match signalling the end of the first round of fixtures and quickly followed by a League Cup quarter-final against arch-rivals Hearts and then a trip to Fir Park for the start of the second series of games in the Premiership.
And it also presents Hibs with the opportunity to try to build a more formidable home record, just one of their four league wins so far coming at Easter Road, although they haven’t lost in their last three matches in the Capital.
Adamant that a top six spot is the absolute minimum for a club which has finished tenth, 11th and seventh in the past three seasons, Thomson said: “Looking at the league, there is no reason why we cannot be challenging for second.
“We are not in cloud cuckoo land, we know Celtic are going to win the league. They are the best team in the league and eventually they are going to run away with it. But second spot is up for grabs. Inverness have slipped up a couple of times recently, so there is no team that is unbeatable.
“Saturday is a massive game. I did think when Derek McInnes went there and the players he has signed... the Barry Robsons, the Willo Floods, hardened players but with good quality... I thought they would be the team to beat for second place. So I think it is a good benchmark for us to see where we are really at.”
Defeats by Motherwell and then Hearts in the opening two games of the season following the mauling by Malmo in the Europa League had, Thomson admitted, put everyone at Easter Road under strain, losing at Tynecastle to the financially stricken Gorgie outfit’s young side heaping even further pressure on Fenlon.
However, revealed Thomson, the Irishman refused to buckle and is now, the player believes, beginning to reap the rewards for sticking to his beliefs. He said: “It hurts everyone when you are beaten in a derby but I think it is unfair that people should have been writing off Hearts for having a young squad.
“I think sometimes that can be to their advantage – a small squad, that togetherness.
“They are a good team and have a lot of good young players, so we know next Wednesday is going to be difficult.
“The flak we received after the Tynecastle game is part and parcel of having poor results. The Malmo game did not help.
“We were on a hiding to nothing and the pressure was mounting on the squad, on the manager.
“It was up to us to rectify that and the good thing about the manager was he never changed regardless of the results.
“He kept preaching every day because he believed in his philosophy and, fingers crossed, we are out the other side now and look a half-decent team.”
While both Hibs and Hearts fans are already eyeing the second Edinburgh derby of the season – the Jambos having sold out their 3800 allocation of tickets – Thomson has his eyes firmly fixed on Saturday, although, he admitted, he’s also relishing the prospect of the cup clash, recalling the last such match in which he wore a green and white shirt.
Almost seven years ago he was part of the Hibs side which defeated Hearts 1-0 at exactly the same stage of the competition, skipper Rob Jones’ goal paving the way to Hampden and cup glory with a 5-1 victory over Kilmarnock in the final.
It proved, however, to be one of Thomson’s last matches for Hibs – a £2 million move to Rangers following only a few weeks later.
At Ibrox, championship, Scottish and League Cup medals came his way, as well as an appearance in the UEFA Cup final as Rangers lost to Zenit St Petersburg.
But, as a lifelong fan of the Easter Road club, Thomson still harbours ambitions to lift silverware with Hibs.
“And, with Celtic out of the League Cup, Hibs feel they have as good a chance as any of lifting the trophy next March.
He told Hibs TV: “I can remember that game like it was yesterday – arguably it was one of my best performances of the season.
“Big Rob scored the winner, but 1-0 probably flattered them. It was one of those nights we could have scored three or four.
“On a personal note, to miss out on the semi-final and final was hard to take, but, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, it’s hard to have a crystal ball and see what was going to happen.
“Now we have another opportunity and that’s the good thing in football. I am back here a Hibee again and I will be striving my best to try to get us in to the semi-final.
“I have always said the honours I have achieved in my career are fantastic. I am proud of all of them and playing in the UEFA Cup final is something not a lot of players do.
“But I have always said to win one with Hibs would be ultra-special, and this could be our year.”