Having first watched rivals Hearts then a rejuvenated Rangers occupy pole position for much of the previous two Scottish Championship seasons, Lewis Stevenson believes it’s now Hibs’ turn to lead from the front as they seek an automatic return to Scottish football’s top flight.
The Easter Road club, having been eliminated from the play-offs by Rangers and this weekend’s opponents Falkirk in the last two campaigns, continue to set the pace in the Championship following their 3-0 victory at Ayr United, who remain the only side to have defeated Stevenson and his team-mates in the league this term.
Starting the season as title favourites brought a new kind of pressure for Neil Lennon’s side, with expectations as well as confidence having been boosted following their historic Scottish Cup win in May.
So far, they are handling it admirably.
And, with a manager at the helm who has experience of leading the table for long periods and winning leagues with Celtic by demanding high standards of his charges, Stevenson believes the club is now better equipped both on the pitch and in the dug-out to end its three-year hiatus from the Ladbrokes Premiership.
“With the manager, training day in, day out is at a good tempo – he never lets your standards drop,” explained the 28-year-old. “I think that’s come across this season on the pitch. We’re fit, we’re strong and we’ve got that winning mentality that we’ll need to win the league. Training’s tough. Sometimes you moan about it, but it’s tough for a reason. If we can peak on a Saturday like we have done the last few weeks then longer term we’ll see the benefits of that.
“The last few years we’ve wanted to get promoted and it’s no different this year. This season it’s our main priority to win the league but it’s going to be tough. It’s never easy to win games. People maybe come here and think we should be walking over teams but that’s not the case, as teams like Ayr have shown.
“I’ve probably said it every year, but I genuinely do think this is as strong a team as we’ve had. It’s a great group of boys and they stick together. When things have been going tough this year, we’ve pulled it back out and that’s another three-game winning run we’re on just now. We’re playing well and we’ve got a strong squad. Our bench is probably as strong as it’s been since I’ve been here. Things are looking good so long may it continue.”
Stevenson wouldn’t say so publicly, but it is becoming increasingly clearer that Dundee United will be Hibs’ main challengers for the title. While Hibs were cruising to victory in Ayrshire on Saturday, Ray McKinnon’s team were also racking up the goals in south west Scotland, leaving Dumfries with a 4-1 triumph over Queen of the South. That particular battle at the top may become more pronounced next spring, but for now, Stevenson is only looking internally.
“It’s still early days,” he cautioned. “We can’t focus on Dundee United, just ourselves. It’s the old cliché, but you just have to focus on every game as it comes. If we keep winning week in, week out then we know we’re going to be up there come the end of the season. We can’t focus too much on other people’s results. Dundee United are doing well just now but the longer we keep winning, the more chance we’ll have of winning the league.”
Hibs may have scored one less than the Arabs but can boast a far tighter defence. Only six goals conceded in 12 games is the best defensive record in all four divisions, something which Stevenson credits to a change of system.
“The back three are solid and all big, good athletes,” he said. “Since we’ve gone 3-5-2 we haven’t lost many goals but we still have that outlet going forward. We get a lot of the ball and get our good ball players on it, so it’s a great foundation with the boys in the middle and the strikers are causing teams problems. It still gives me my defensive work but I’ve got more licence to go forward and get involved. To be honest, I’ve probably played a bit better since moving to the 3-5-2 and so far, I’m enjoying it.”
Falkirk are the next team tasked with trying to breach that miserly backline. First of all, however, there is the small issue of England-Scotland at Wembley the night before.
Team-mate John McGinn is in contention to be involved, and to what level will determine whether or not he can take to the Easter Road pitch less than 24 hours later. His display at Somerset Park on Saturday will have done his chances of adding to his two caps no harm at all though, a thunderbolt via the inside of the post against Ayr acting as a reminder to Gordon Strachan of his capabilities.
“It was unbelievable,” said Stevenson of McGinn’s free-kick to make it 3-0. “I was free on the left and was thinking ‘what’s he daein’?’ when he pulled his foot back, but you’ll not see a better strike than that this season. It’s going to be amazing for him to be involved at Wembley and he deserves it because he’s been brilliant for us and I hope he has his part to play, We can’t focus on that too much though, we have to focus on Falkirk which is another big game. We need to keep the momentum going. We’ve had good battles in the past with Falkirk and I’m sure it will be the same again.”