Playing for Hibs has put a smile back on the face of Liam Fontaine after the defender found himself cast into the wilderness at his previous club Bristol City.
Despite having played nearly 300 games for the Robins, Fontaine fell out of favour at Ashton Gate, spending the final four months of last season with the soul-destroying realisation that no matter how hard he trained during the week he wouldn’t be asked to pull on a jersey come the Saturday.
Now, though, he is thoroughly enjoying his football again, part of a side put together by Alan Stubbs which has tasted defeat just once in 18 Championship matches, the Easter Road club having recovered from a stuttering start to the season to again be regarded as a firm favourite for a play-off spot with second place very much a possibility.
The renaissance Hibs have undergone over the course of the past few months reflects Fontaine’s own experience, the 29-year-old playing his first match in some seven months only hours after having the paperwork on his move to Edinburgh rubber-stamped.
It proved to be a memorable occasion, Stubbs’ players battling back from being two goals down to inflict a League Cup defeat on Dumbarton thanks to a last-minute strike from Sam Stanton.
But today, as he prepares to face Ian Murray’s side once again, Fontaine insisted the difference between that night in August and now is like night and day, the self-doubt which was still evident following the shock of relegation long gone, replaced by a new-found confidence which only winning can bring.
He said: “That game against Dumbarton was my first in a few months. I’d had an ankle operation when I finished at Bristol, a clean-up, and had hardly done any pre-season. Fitness levels from then to now are massively changed. Training every day, playing week-in, week-out helps. Results help as does learning the gaffer’s way as a team, a squad, over three or four months. Watching from the sidelines I think you can see that.
“We’re on a good run of form, there’s only been that one defeat [against Falkirk] which was hard to take, losing a game in the last minute we should probably have won. We just want to win every game and when you do it’s a great feeling, it’s contagious and you want more of that feeling.”
Fontaine and his team-mates, of course, enjoyed that winning feeling yet again as they defeated Rangers for a third game in succession last week, a result the Londoner insisted has to be followed up with victory tomorrow, one he hopes will come thanks to a stylish performance after Stubbs’ players dug in to grind out the result at Ibrox.
He said: “I think we showed a different side to our game against Rangers. We knew from previous matches they couldn’t afford to let us get into our rhythm and to fair to them in the early part of the game they were at us. Despite what’s happening off the field through there they are still a big club and it’s still a big stadium to go and play. So to get a result and keep a clean sheet for us was great.”
Fontaine played his part in that shut-out, heading Kenny Miller’s early shot off his own line, the stopper admitting he took as much pleasure from that moment as strikers Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings do from scoring. He said: “It was instinct. I asked myself if I was Kenny Miller what would I try to do. That’s where I positioned myself and he did what I thought he would do.
“It was a key moment in the game and it was as a good a feeling as a striker scoring. As a defender you try to chip in with goals when you can but we have to stop goals. We did that, Mark Oxley made some great saves, there were some great blocks. As a defender you appreciate the strikers and midfielders scoring goals the majority of the time but I am sure they look back at us and appreciate us at times.
“That’s why it’s a team, the spirit we have here is really good, it’s a great bunch of lads. We did the horrible side winning against Rangers but now we have to get our game back on and break down a Dumbarton team that’s gong to come and try to frustrate us. But we have the quality, we have shown that, and now we have to perform again, to play the game at our tempo and in our way.”
Rangers, of course, could move ahead of Hibs again should they win against Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park tonight with Kenny McDowall’s side also enjoying games in hand but Fontaine and his team-mates are determined to ensure Rangers have to win those outstanding matches if they are to deny Hibs second place.
He said: “If we fail to get above them and they still have games in hand then it’s a harder task for us to get second spot. But we have to ask the question and they have to respond.
“Our aim, though, is to keep churning out the results, that’s all we are focused on, keeping those points going up on the board.
“We have a young squad, a hungry squad and the gaffer is trying to get the lads to be even hungrier. We are in the quarter-final of the Scottish Cup and getting through to play at Hampden is another thing to be hungry for.
“Personally I am enjoying my football again. I’m playing with a smile on my face. When you are not in the plans you are just training but as a player you want to better yourself. You train to play. When we are out there on the pitch it’s enjoyable right now.”