It may be a tough journey, but the road to atonement begins on Sunday as Pat Fenlon’s players seek to cast any lingering memories of their Europa League mauling by Malmo aside by producing an eye-catching performance and, hopefully, a victory against Motherwell.
Having to view the events of last Thursday night again hasn’t been pleasant for the Easter Road squad but, midfielder Liam Craig insisted today, it has made the players all the more determined to ensure the opening day of the new Scottish Premiership provides the springboard for “an exciting and successful” season.
Craig acknowledged, however, it will need a bit more than a “kiss and make up” between players and fans. A bumper crowd of 16,000 were subjected to the humiliation at the hands of the Swedes, a night which left many requiring serious convincing that last season’s seventh-place finish, a decided improvement on the 11th of a year earlier, can be bettered this time round.
The midfielder, though, is convinced Fenlon has assembled a squad capable of doing just that, with his former St Johnstone team-mate Rowan Vine, ex-Inverness Caley star Owain Tudur Jones, defender Michael Nelson and Swindon Town striker James Collins having also been recruited over the summer, while Kevin Thomson and Ryan McGivern have been retained.
Nevertheless, Craig agreed a promising start to domestic action was required. “The end of last week and the weekend wasn’t pleasant,” he said. “We looked over the Malmo game again but the important thing is we learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. We were bitterly disappointed by the manner in which we lost the goals and the manner in which we played.
“It’s not nice to be part of that, we shouldn’t be losing seven goals to anyone. It’s not acceptable at all but if we can learn from it and have a good season, then brilliant. The Malmo game is gone, there’s nothing we can do about it and now we have to make sure we are ready for Sunday. That’s what the focus has been on this week and the boys have been bright and positive.
“The fans were incredible against Malmo but we know we let them down. We appreciate having them behind us but we know the only way to get them truly back on side is by performing and making sure we get good results. Hopefully we can do both on Sunday and that will give us something to build on.
“We feel we have a really good squad of players and we can have a good season both in the league and in the cups.”
However, aside from champions Celtic, Hibs could hardly have picked tougher opposition than Motherwell. The Fir Park side finished second last season, and manager Stuart McCall has replenished his squad with the arrivals of players like Gunnar Nielsen, Stephen McManus, Paul Lawson, Iain Vigurs and John Sutton to compensate for the loss of Darren Randolph, Michael Higdon, Tom Hateley, Nicky Law and Chris Humphrey, among others. The small matter of retaining prodigal son James McFadden for the season merely adds to the Well fans’ optimism.
Fenlon ensured Motherwell were watched in last night’s Europa League clash with Russian side Kuban Krasnodar in Lanarkshire but Craig dismissed the notion that playing the first leg of the third qualifying round three days before the new season kicks off would leave McCall’s players with any sort of hangover for their trip to the Capital.
He did, though, admit he’d like to repeat his feat of having scored against the Steelmen in the final game of last season after he grabbed the opening goal as St Johnstone clinched their own place in the Europa League with a 2-0 win.
He said: “It would be nice to do that again, but the more important thing is a performance and result. Motherwell have had a fantastic few years but no game is easy and we know we’ll have to be at our best to take the points. Motherwell are well used to playing in Europe. I’m sure Stuart McCall, his staff and players are well aware of how to cope with playing at that level on a Thursday night then going into the league on a Sunday.
“They’ll be well prepared but the important thing is we focus on ourselves and make sure we are ready.” With Vine suspended, Collins is likely to spearhead Hibs’ attack on Sunday. While fans will instantly try to compare the 22-year-old hitman with 28-goal Leigh Griffiths, Craig insisted there was a shared responsibility in that department, pointing out that while Saints didn’t have one player get into double figures last season, they still managed to finish third.
The scorer of eight goals himself, Craig said: “James has come in, looked sharp in training and I am sure he will add goals to the squad. But I think everyone has to be chipping in, whether it’s a centre-half going up at corners or midfielders breaking forward. It would be nice if James could rattle in 15 or 20 goals but it’s not down to one person.”
Vine, once the subject of a £3 million move from Luton Town to Birmingham City, may only have notched seven goals for Saints, but Craig is backing the much-travelled star to have goalkeepers picking the ball out of the net more regularly. He said: “Rowan played out wide at times last season rather than through the middle so maybe the goals didn’t reflect on how well he did for St Johnstone.
“What he did for the team was really good, he helped us finish third with the goals he set up for others. His all-round game was far better than his goals return might suggest and if you play him predominantly through the middle, goals are a big part of his game.
“We’ve got good strikers in James, Rowan, Ross Caldwell and Danny Handling but I think we have to take it upon ourselves to take the pressure of them and chip in all round the team if we are to have a successful season. We all have to play our part, whether it’s making sure we are hard to beat at the back or going forward getting goals.
“It’s unfortunate we are going into the opening game with a number of injuries and suspensions but it’s then up to others to come in and prove they should be in there every week. If they are doing that then the competition for places intensifies which can only be good for the manager and the club.”