Ultimately, the SPL rankings didn’t lie, in finishing 11th Hibs had endured a terrible season, one in which they only managed to remove the threat of relegation with a storming 4-0 win over doomed Dunfermline in the penultimate game of the season.
Today, though, with the new season only a couple of days away – Hibs’ introduction to the fray delayed 24 hours with opponents Dundee United in Europa League action last night – Easter Road striker Leigh Griffiths insisted the bald statistics contained within the league table didn’t tell the whole story.
Football is, of course, a results driven business and it is the outcome of each match which determines success or failure once all 38 games have been played and Griffiths recognises no-one at Easter Road can complain at finding themselves described as the top flight’s second poorest side, one which many don’t see making much in the way of progress over the coming months.
However, it is up to Griffiths and the rest of boss Pat Fenlon’s squad to prove those who don’t hold out much hope for Hibs wrong and, he insisted, a closer examination of what took place within matches provides grounds for cautious optimism. He said: “I think a lot of people thought just because we were beaten we had played really badly. But I was telling them we weren’t as bad as people were making out, that if they actually come to the games they would see that in a good number of them we probably had more possession and chances than the other team.
“The thing was, though, that the opposition seemed to take their chances. But if you look at our games against Motherwell, who finished third, for instance, you can see what I am talking about. We were 1-0 up against them at Fir Park only for the game to be called off, we won there in the League Cup, they beat us 4-3 on their own ground and we drew 1-1 at Easter Road.
“Throughout the season there were not too many games in which we were battered, otherwise games tended to be fairly tight.”
Slack defending and individual mistakes were far too often Hibs’ downfall but during pre-season Griffiths has detected a determination from boss Fenlon that Hibs are going to be much tougher to break down, the Irishman having brought in goalkeeper Ben Williams who will play behind, going by the back four favoured in the warm-up matches, Tim Clancy, James McPake, David Stephens and Paul Hanlon.
Griffiths said: “What we have to do is turn those single-goal defeats into draws, to turn draws into wins. One goal can often make a huge difference to the outcome of a match and if we can do that then hopefully we will pick up more points.”
As things stand, Fenlon looks set to hand the on-loan Wolves star the onerous burden of spearheading Hibs attack, the former Livingston and Dundee hitman having been deployed in that role against OH Leuven, a Zeeland Select, and Union Berlin during the club’s mini-European tour before returning home to score as Hibs came from two goals down to draw with English Championship new boys Huddersfield Town in the final preparatory game.
It’s a responsibility, however, that Griffiths insists he’ll relish rather than fret over, saying: “I like being pressurised in a game. I played there a couple of times last season. I’m not the biggest, but I’ll be working my socks off. It’s up to the manager where he wants to play me, but wherever it is I’ll always give my all but don’t forget we also have the likes of Ivan Sproule and Eoin Doyle who are electric.”
As a former Dens Park star Griffiths knows he’ll be far from popular with the home fans on Sunday but he’s well prepared for the reception he’ll get both on and off the pitch. He said: “We’re all ready for it but we know it will be a difficult game.
“We know what Dundee United are like, a Peter Houston team is always hard to break down and tough to beat. We drew 3-3 at Easter Road last season and beaten 2-0 down here while I scored early up there on Christmas Eve but we weren’t able to hold on unfortunately.
“We’ll be looking to give a good account of ourselves and hopefully they’ll be a bit tired from having played Dynamo Moscow last night while we’ve had a full week’s training and are raring to get started.”
It’s hard to remember that it is little more than two years since Hibs and United were vying for fourth place but while readily agreeing that’s where he’d dearly love to see the side he’s supported all his life competing again, Griffiths insisted there also had to be a sense of realism.
While some have already made the bold claim that they can be the team to fill the void left by the demise of Rangers as an SPL force, Griffiths said: “I know others have been saying they can finish second but I think for us having finished 11th to get to second would be a massive jump.
“I think if you were to ask the manager a respectable league position, at least top six, and a couple of good cup runs would be the target, but primarily a good league position.”
A vastly improved home record – just two league games won on their own turf last season – would go a long way to helping Hibs achieve that goal, everyone at Easter Road well aware their first home game will be against Capital rivals Hearts, the memories of that Scottish Cup final defeat in May still raw. Griffiths said: “It’s incredible to think we never won a home game on a Saturday all season.
“We are obviously going to try and change that – and quickly. The first derby will be massive for both Hearts and ourselves but first and foremost it’s Dundee United and hopefully we can get off to a good start.”