Hibs boss Neil Lennon has backed his players to revel in the atmosphere of a near sell-out Easter Road in tonight’s top-of-the-table clash with Championship title rivals Dundee United.
The home end is completely sold out but, with United having been given another 650 briefs after selling out their initial 1900 allocation, segregation arrangements mean none are available for Hibs supporters in the South Stand.
While accepting a turn-out which looks like hitting the 19,000 mark for a game which is being televised live on BBC ALBA can bring its own pressures, Lennon believes his players can handle the occasion.
He said: “You have to enjoy it. It’s under the lights as well which always adds a little bit of edge to the game. They have played in big games before. They played in two cup finals last year and beaten Premiership teams along the way. They’ve been more or less top of the league for the majority of the season so they have handled things pretty well in the main.
“There are no Premiership matches so there is a little bit more interest in this game. It will be tremendous to have that many fans in the stadium. Hopefully, our players can respond positively to that and make the most of home advantage. We play pretty well at home, we dominate most of the ball and we hope we can do the same and create plenty of chances.”
Having regained top spot in the league – albeit by only a point from United – Lennon hopes tonight’s match will begin to see his side pull away from the pack with the imminent return from injury of influential midfielders John McGinn and Fraser Fyvie – along with goalkeeper Ofir Marciano – allied to the arrival of Chris Humphrey hopefully adding further impetus.
He said: “I’m hoping we can kick on, find a level of consistency and wins. McGinn and Fyvie aren’t far away and they have been a big miss for us the way they were playing early on in the season. The goalkeeper isn’t far away either, so to have those three back it could be like having three new signings.
“Obviously, tonight is first against second. If we win, we know what’s at stake – we are four points clear. If we draw we’re still top. If we lose, we are two points behind. So the gap is minimal either way but I think it is important psychologically for us to put in a good performance and win the game.”
Lennon insisted he’s not been in the least surprised at how well the Tannadice outfit have done recently, Ray McKinnon’s players having backed up a draw at Easter Road with a win over the Edinburgh club on their own turf.
He said: “Ray has had a lot of chopping and changing to do and they have been pretty consistent until last weekend. Most teams who come down are pretty strong. Some people might not see it that way. I know by the way they are talking it is a miracle and it is this, that and the other, but I think they have a lot of quality in their squad and little bit of backing as well so it doesn’t surprise me that they are up there.”
While McGinn, who underwent an ankle operation, took part in the warm-up before last weekend’s victory over Falkirk, Lennon admitted tonight might come too soon for the Scotland internationalist, while on-loan Celtic midfielder Kris Commons, scorer of a stunning late winner against the Bairns, is suffering from a cold.
New signing Humphrey will come into contention, although Lennon won’t make a decision on what part, if any, he plays until nearer kick-off. He said: “Chris is ready. He is fit. We feel he will bring something which we haven’t really had, a bit of width, a bit of pace and a bit of directness as well. It is a big game and a lot to take on board early on, so we have got all those things to take into consideration.”