Given Hibs’ current predicament, Liam Craig is probably the last person you would expect to hear talking up the Scottish Premiership’s newly-introduced relegation play-off.
But although just one point separates Terry Butcher’s side from that dreaded 11th place, the Easter Road captain admits he’s a fan of the change which puts a second club’s top-flight status at risk.
Becoming embroiled in that particular battle, though, was something Craig didn’t envisage when he made the move from St Johnstone to Edinburgh last summer, his thoughts more on scrapping away at the top end of the table and enjoying lengthy runs in both cup competitions.
However, accepting he and his team-mates are where they are through their own shortcomings, particularly over the course of the past three months or so, Craig insisted there was no getting away from the excitement the fight to avoid the play-off place has brought to what would otherwise have been a lifeless end to the season.
The midfielder said: “If the play-off wasn’t in place there would probably have been six or seven weeks with nothing to play for. I think it is a good thing. Obviously no-one wants to be relegated but I think if you ask the players in the bottom six clubs they’ll say it’s great to have something to play for.
“Every games is massive until the end of the season. There’s only two points separating the five teams involved and, I think, only two goals between us as well, it’s so close no-one is safe.”
Having lost six successive matches and enjoyed just one win in their last 15 league games, it’s not surprising Hibs have found much of the media focus on them, Butcher’s players the favourites in the eyes of many to be the side which has to scrap it out with a Championship side for the right to be at the top table next season.
But while professing to having not paid much attention to what is being said or written, Craig said: “I’ve stayed away from looking at the press but I have heard bits and pieces here and there. We are a big club but we are not too big to be relegated. However, at the same time the expectation at this club is to be a lot higher than the position we find ourselves in.”
Like everyone at Easter Road Craig struggles to identify just what has gone wrong for a side which began the year on the back of three straight wins, a run which was prompting thoughts of Europe, even the 2-2 draw away to Dundee United when a two-goal lead was surrendered in the last ten minutes which followed not sounding any alarm bells.
Craig said: “I think if you look through the whole league there’s not a lot between the teams in games. We’ve spoken a lot about small margins in every game. Even last Sunday against Hearts they scored from two set plays in quick succession and that’s the biggest thing for us. We are disappointed in how we have lost goals as a team over the last two months, in a lot of games we’ve conceded first which makes it hard and in the last four we have gone 2-0 down which gives you no chance in any game. We need to get back to defending from the front as a team.”
Craig’s argument is strengthened by the fact that the last time they got their noses in front, against fellow relegation battlers Ross County, they won.
He said: “As I’ve said, there’s not much between the teams so getting the first goal is a massive thing. If you look over the season the team that’s scored first probably doesn’t lose the game.” But while many may be writing Hibs off, Craig was adamant that confidence among Butcher’s players remains high, their morale helped by a performance in the derby – although it ended in defeat yet again – which their manager described as their best in a long, long time.
The 27-year-old said: “The one thing we have had throughout the season is a good dressing-room and that’s what has to carry us over this last week of the season. There were a lot of positives in the Hearts game although that doesn’t get away from the disappointment of losing a game, never mind a derby, but we don’t have any time to dwell on that as we have three massive games and we need to treat them with the same attitude and commitment we did the derby.
“The atmosphere about the place is really good and positive.”
Craig is well aware supporters of every club – and probably most of the players involved – will have frantically been trying to work out the various permutations which might unfold in the final three rounds of fixtures, some claiming that one more win might just be enough to see any of the protagonists safe.
Steering clear of 11th place is, of course, the primary target but, as far as Craig is concerned it’s not Hibs’ final objective, adamant that seventh place can still be secured. Noting that Hibs have already beaten each of the three teams they are yet to play – tomorrow’s visit from Partick Thistle, away to Ross County and then home to Kilmarnock – Craig said: “I don’t know if one win would be enough because it is so tight. But we want to win all three, starting with tomorrow. A victory over Partick would give us a good platform for the rest of the week.
“All these games are the proverbial six-pointers as you can not only do yourself a lot of good but inflict a fair bit of harm on others. But we can only concentrate on ourselves.
“It’s in our hands, we have three to play and if we win them all I think we’ll finish seventh. We can’t affect what other teams do but it’s in our hands and if we were to end up in the play-off we’d have no-one to blame but us.”