Liam Fontaine believes Hibs have assembled a high-quality squad which is just about ready to ignite.
The recently-recruited centre-back accepts that their start to the campaign has been underwhelming, but, after four weeks as a Hibee, the Londoner has seen enough both in training and in matches to decipher that he is part of a group of players who shouldn’t be anywhere near the Championship’s relegation zone.
Fontaine feels Hibs, with a mixture of highly- regarded young talents and seasoned top-flight performers, aren’t far away from fulfilling their potential. “I think we’ve got a quality squad here,” he told the Evening News. “You only have to look at the guys we had on the bench last Tuesday. Because we’ve got a lot of strength in a lot of positions, you don’t know what the team will be week to week.
“It’s credit to the club for getting such a strong squad together. We need to now gel as a team and get the results our squad on paper suggests we should be getting. I think it’s only a matter of time.
“Anyone can have a good team on paper, but you’ve got to put the points on the board and climb the table, and that’s what we’re working towards. As well as having good players, we’ve got good characters here so there’s no reason why things shouldn’t click for us.”
Following their early-season struggles in the Championship, Fontaine sensed Hibs finally started to click in last Tuesday’s 2-0 victory away to Premiership side Ross County in the League Cup. The 28-year-old is hoping they can take a further step in the right direction when they visit title favourites Rangers tonight.
“We’ve got every right to be on a high because we’re going to Ibrox on the back of a good performance,” he said. “We needed that win after our previous results – everything seemed to come together for us. We scored two great goals and defensively we were solid. We have to maintain that.
“A cup win against a Premiership team is great for confidence. After Tuesday’s result, it would be huge if we could go to Rangers and win. We’ve had disappointing results but we’re trying to play football the right way. We have to do every part of the game a bit more consistently and then we’ll see a turn for the better. Tuesday was evidence that we’re heading in the right direction.”
Fontaine, the former Bristol City defender, knows there was some discontent among Hibs supporters over their team’s patchy form, but is adamant there has been no such despair in the dressing-room where the players have continued to believe that they will start to flourish. “There was a wee bit of negativity among the fans because it’s always hard to watch when the team are not getting results, but the boys have always been buoyant on the training ground,” he said. “We’ve been putting everything into games without getting our rewards but on Tuesday, it all came together. If we stay positive and keep doing what we did on Tuesday then we’ll see a change in results.”
The prospect of running out at one of the biggest stadiums in the country tonight and being tasked with trying to keep quiet the most prolific Scottish striker of the modern era holds no fears for Fontaine. He knows Kris Boyd from their brief time together at Kilmarnock in 2005 and has played at grounds of Ibrox’s ilk in the past.
“I’ve played at Wembley, so big stadiums are not a problem for me,” he said. “I’ve played at plenty big grounds in the Championship so that won’t bother me at all. It’s just a grass pitch with two goals – we can’t treat it any different to any other place. It’ll be good to play against Boydy. I know him quite well from Kilmarnock and I played against him when he was at Middlesbrough and I was at Bristol City. He’ll be hungry to score because he’s not scored for a while but for me it’s just like any other game. I’ve just got to treat Boydy like any other opponent and try and stop him.”
After being benched for successive league games against Cowdenbeath and Queen of the South, Fontaine earned a recall to the starting line-up for last week’s match against County as Alan Stubbs opted to try three central defenders in a new-look 3-5-2 formation. It worked well as they recorded their first clean sheet of the season and the head coach is pondering sticking with the same approach in Glasgow this evening.
“It was good playing three at the back,” said Fontaine. “It was a change for us so it’s something we have to work on and get used to, but as a team we looked solid. They hammered crosses into our box all night but I thought we dealt well with them. We’ll have to stand up to that sort of thing against Rangers.”
Fontaine had previous experience of playing in a 3-5-2 before and believes it has plenty of merit. “I’m easy either way whether I’m playing in a two or a three,” he said. “I’m a defender first and foremost – regardless of whether you’re in a two or three, you’ve just got to defend and make sure you’re in the right place at the right time. I’ve played in a three a few times at my previous clubs. It’s a slight change to your normal job but if you work on it and get it right, it’s a really effective formation. In a three, you’ve always got that reassurance that someone else is there covering because you usually have one spare.”
Fontaine has made three starts for Hibs, with two of those matches resulting in victories. He has enjoyed acclimatising to a new challenge in Edinburgh after eight years at Bristol City. “I like it here,” he said. “I’m feeling more settled now. I’ve found a place to live and I’m getting to know the lads and the manager and the way the club works. I feel my form has been okay. I didn’t do much of a pre-season so the more game-time I get, the better I’ll get. Hopefully I’ll keep my place tonight, but whatever happens we’ve got a lot of games to play and we’ve got a lot of good players to deal with it.”
One of those players is Dominique Malonga, who is set to lead the attack tonight after scoring three goals in three games.
“Dom will be an effective player for us,” added Fontaine. “He’s not even fully fit yet but once he gets fit, he’ll be even better. He’s a big lad with a great touch and he knows the way to goal.”