THE minds are focused and they’re raring to go. Liam Craig insists the fact Hibs’ players now have no margin for error has helped psyche them for the biggest game of their season.
Only a win at home to Kilmarnock today will save them from the further ordeal of having to come through a play-off against an upwardly-mobile Championship side to preserve their Premiership status.
For a team that has dropped like a stone from seventh place to 11th after failing to win any of their last 12 matches, a genuine must-win match should look a formidable proposition.
Not so, according to Craig. Ever since it became apparent on Wednesday night that Hibs would have to beat Kilmarnock today, the club captain has been steeled for battle.
“The last two nights are the best I’ve slept in a long time because we know what needs to be done,” he said with conviction. “As silly as that may sound, you think about things all of the time. But, as soon as Wednesday’s results came through, I’ve slept okay knowing what is required. Training has been good and we’re ready for it.
“In the last few weeks we’ve relied on other teams to keep us sitting seventh or eighth in the league. This is the first time we found ourselves in eleventh. Every other team has taken their chance to get out of it and we’ll look to take ours. We know what we have to do and we’re going out to win it.”
Hibs may have failed to get the win required to ease their predicament before now, but Craig feels that performances have improved enough in his side’s last few matches to prompt a degree of optimism.
In addition, he is confident there are enough big characters in the dressing-room to ensure his team handle the magnitude of the occasion and overcome their well-documented goal-scoring problems.
“I look at the players in the squad and it’s good,” said Craig. “The performances in the past three games have not been that far away. I see the experience, I see the quality and it’s a game we can win. We haven’t changed much in the past week because of the performances. The lack of goals might be why we’re in this position, so we need to get some. We know what we have to do. If we don’t get the first goal, we’re not going to panic. There is a lot of experience in there and we need to deal with the situation.
“You look at experienced boys in the squad, but even the likes of Jordan Forster have now played a lot of games and have their own experience. They are going to benefit from games like this. You go out there, win it and then look back and realise it is one of the biggest games we are going to ever play in.
“The form table doesn’t lie.The results have not been good enough, for any team, for any level of football. But I look at the squad and have great belief in myself and the boys to get ourselves out of this situation. There are big characters in our squad and we’re going to need them.”
Hibs, the lowest scorers in the Premiership, have netted only two goals in their last seven games, prompting concerns about how they will find a way to beat a Killie side containing 21-goal hitman Kris Boyd. Craig, however, has seen enough on the training ground to believe there is plenty firepower among his team-mates.
“We haven’t scored enough goals,” he said. “That’s obvious when you look at the table. We’ve taken confidence from the last three performances, but we’ve not scored. You see people scoring in training every day and realise we just need to relax a bit.”
Hibs’ dismal home form has also prompted concerns about whether or not the players are inhibited by playing in front of a disillusioned home support at Easter Road. Craig, however, has detected only supportive vibes from the sidelines in recent games and is hoping the green-and-white hordes can recreate the din that accompanied their 2-1 win over Hearts in front of more than 20,000 people back on January 2.
“I don’t think the negativity’s been there the last couple of weeks, the response we got at half-time 1-0 down to Partick Thistle showed that. At the end of the game, the fans helped us. They have been great because there have been some tough results and it’s not been easy to watch at times. We know we’ve not been good enough but we hope to put that right. Over the years I think they have stuck with the club and when we do get it right, like the derby at New Year, you see how special a place Easter Road can be and we want another atmosphere like that. As long as we’re playing well and scoring goals, the fans will be there. We need to get at Kilmarnock right from the start and give them something to shout about.”
Craig is adamant that, even if Hibs get the result they require, there will be no tub-thumping celebrations from him. He moved from St Johnstone to Hibs with the intention of battling for European places, not last-day survival fights. As captain, he is determined that any positive outcome is not allowed to paper over the cracks of the past four months.
“If we put in a positive performance, we’ll enjoy the summer a wee bit more but it’s not going to deflect from what has happened this season,” he explained.
“Regardless of what happens, we’ve got to sit back and reflect on how it’s got to this point because it’s not good enough. It’s been like this for a while now and one win in 18 games at any level is not good enough. As much as the win will see us safe, I still think there is a lot of hard work to do in the summer to rebuild for next year.
“I won’t be celebrating at all. It’s not going to be a celebration, it’s not something to celebrate, finishing ninth, tenth in the league. I think there will a lot of relief but definitely not a case for celebrating.
Despite Hibs’ toils, while his old club St Johnstone sit comfortably in the top six with a Scottish Cup final to look forward to, Craig has no regrets about defecting from Perth to Edinburgh. “I’ve loved it all the time here,” he insisted. “You see the training ground, the stadium and the fans have been excellent. I’ve enjoyed it and it has been tough at times but it’s experiences that you’re going to benefit from. I knew coming here that the expectation is a lot higher.
“We fell below that this year and, in the summer, we’re going to have to put it right regardless of what happens. To captain the club is a great honour, I’ll be looking at myself in the summer to see how I can improve and help this club move forward.”