Michael Nelson today predicted plenty of trouble ahead for Scottish Premiership defences after watching Hibs strikers Paul Heffernan and James Collins grab their first goals for the Easter Road outfit.
While Heffernan scored on his first start for Pat Fenlon’s side, £200,000 signing Collins had to wait until his sixth match to get off the mark as the pair guided the Capital club to a 2-1 win against St Johnstone, which stretched their unbeaten run to four games.
But Nelson revealed he’d seen signs of a potentially lethal partnership forming on the training ground, with Heffernan and Collins apparently displaying an instinctive awareness of what the other was doing. The big defender, a former team-mate of Heffernan at Kilmarnock, said: “I was delighted for Heff coming in and getting off the mark straight away. But even more so for James because his all-round play in the first few games has been brilliant, with the amount of work he has put in for the team without getting any plaudits or recognition.
“Sometimes as a striker you are purely judged on your goals but there is a lot more to his game than that and I think you will see that over the coming weeks if he and Heff do get the time to form a partnership.”
As a centre-back, Nelson can appreciate more than most the qualities of Fenlon’s new-look strikeforce. “They are tough,” he said. “Their movement is good and they are both strong boys. They’ll hold it in. It’s not just about the goals, it is about the amount of work they get through for the team and trying to bring other players in, like Liam Craig and others who drive forward from midfield.
“The space they can create for them will get us goals like it did at Kilmarnock when Liam got his two. They’ll ask questions of centre-backs. They won’t just stand up against them and be static. They will move them around and take them into positions where they don’t feel comfortable.
“It’s that little movement where you just pull someone out of position, not necessarily to get the ball yourself but to make a hole or a pocket for someone else to get into and hopefully we will see that over the coming weeks.”
Nelson believes the contrast in styles between the two – Heffernan prepared to come short and link play while Collins likes to work off the shoulder of defenders – will prove to be a profitable operation. He said: “Heff is clever. He is not lightning quick, but he puts his body in positions and buys himself time.
“When you see the ball coming in to him anywhere from his chest to his feet, he has a touch and very rarely does he lay it off quickly. He is very good at buying time. He always seems able to look around and weigh up all the options before he lays it off. It’s brilliant as a defender to know when the ball goes up there it is going to stick. And with those two up there, the majority of time it will.
“They’ve looked good. Even before the game last week in training, being on the same team in seven-a-side games you could see that, without having worked on anything, it sort of evolved naturally. They just got to know each other’s games by watching one another. It’s one of those things that will hopefully develop even better.”
Nelson has turned in a string of rock-solid performances in the heart of Hibs’ defence since his surprise arrival from Bradford City as Fenlon’s players have steadily overcome an indifferent start to the season, displaying, in their manager’s estimation, tremendous character and resilience as they’ve picked up points despite invariably losing the first goal.
Fenlon has conceded in the past that the perception of Hibs to many was that they were “soft”, a jibe 33-year-old Nelson believes is now well wide of the mark. He said: “If you haven’t got the strength of character when you go 1-0 down, sometimes it becomes 2-0 and 3-0. You do see teams crumble when they concede a goal.
“But in the last two away games, if anything we have improved after going a goal down, although we are probably not too happy about that. We shouldn’t need a goal to go in against us to get a reaction. We should be able to do that from the start. But it just shows the strength of character and the desire the boys have to try and turn things around when things are not going so well.
“I can’t comment on the Malmo result as I wasn’t here, but no-one has rolled us over since I have been at the club. No-one has put a boatload of goals past us or absolutely battered us on the day and had us chasing shadows.
“I think all the games have been quite tight although we could have got a few more points out of the earlier games.”
As for being labelled soft? “It’s people’s opinions,” said Nelson. “If you are on a bad run it’s probably a default comment people will chuck at you whether they have looked at the stats or not. They probably haven’t.
“The amount of times I have heard that in the past. I think it is a bit lazy sometimes to say it without actually looking at the stats and the facts.”