Hibs’ lowly position, bottom of the SPL table, may suggest otherwise, but today Richie Towell insisted he’s returned to Easter Road to find a stronger squad in place.
The 20-year-old Republic of Ireland star is back on familiar ground after agreeing a second loan spell with the Edinburgh club, one which will see him part of Colin Calderwood’s squad until the end of the season rather than the few months of his original stay in the Capital.
He’s returned, though, to find many of those he was calling team-mates not so long ago gone, replaced by a host of new faces as Calderwood has continued the rebuilding of a squad which commenced in January with the arrival of Victor Palsson, Akpo Sodje, Martin Scott, Matt Thornhill and, of course, himself.
Since his temporary move back to parent club Celtic, Ivan Sproule, Garry O’Connor, Sean O’Hanlon, Junior Agogo, Isaiah Osbourne and Leigh Griffiths have all been recruited along with Phil Airey, although the Newcastle United striker has headed back to Tyneside to recuperate from an injury, with Calderwood anticipating him being part of his squad again at the end of next month.
Sadly, however, the influx of fresh talent has, thus far, not had the desired effect on a side which slumped to a tenth-place finish last season. Four defeats in the first five matches have cast Hibs adrift at the foot of the table, albeit by only one point, while Calderwood’s players have a game in hand on many of their most immediate rivals.
The latest setback, however, a defeat by Capital rivals Hearts in the first derby of the season, was felt more keenly than any other. Goals in either half from Ryan Stevenson and Andy Webster earned the Tynecastle outfit a well-deserved victory, stretching the Jambos’ record in such fixtures to an impressive eight unbeaten.
Despite being as bitterly disappointed as anyone else connected with the Easter Road outfit, Towell admitted that, in a somewhat perverse way, he’d enjoyed 90 minutes of first-team football he’d never have envisaged playing only a few days earlier.
Revealing that just 48 hours before signing on again for Calderwood he’d been playing a reserve game for Celtic against Blackpool, the right-back said: “Obviously, it wasn’t the result I’d envisaged. It was disappointing for everyone as we let the fans down.
“I didn’t enjoy being beaten but I did enjoy being part of it all again. I was glad of the 90 minutes I’d got last Tuesday against Blackpool because I couldn’t have come back into a bigger game.”
Having made 16 appearances for Hibs last season, Towell had admitted he would find it difficult to return to Celtic only to feature in closed-doors matches at the Hoops’ Lennoxtown training centre once again, insisting if that was to prove to be the case he’d be willing to go out on loan once more, with Easter Road his preferred destination.
However, it took a degree of persistence from Calderwood to coax Celtic boss Neil Lennon into allowing a season-long deal, one which Towell was only too happy to agree.
He said: “It was difficult because I wanted to play football every week but I don’t think I was going to get that at Celtic. I really enjoyed my time with Hibs last season and when I heard they’d come back in for me I jumped at it. It’s good I’m here until the end of the season. That will allow me to focus purely on my football, the aim being to play every week.”
Towell recognises that plenty of hard work lies ahead, the pressure building on Calderwood and his players alike, with the Hibs boss labouring under a miserable record stretching back into last season and with fan patience being sorely tested.
But he is adamant that, given just a little more time, Calderwood’s new-look squad can turn things around, claiming the fortnight’s grace granted by the break for European Championship qualifying matches will be put to good use on the training ground.
He said: “It hurts to say it, but Hearts deserved their win. We’ve been left bottom of the league, not the position we want to be in, but it is still very early in the season.
“We don’t have a game for a fortnight now, so we can look to get it all sorted out and hopefully start to kick on when we start playing again. There’s been a lot of changes, a lot of new players have come in and I honestly think the squad looks stronger than it did last season.
“I only came in on Thursday, and Leigh Griffiths the day after, while a number of the other new players are only just coming back from injury. So I think that once every one is fully fit, we gel together and play as we know we can, then we will be OK.
“The position we are in does not reflect the capabilities we have, it’s just a matter of working hard on the training ground and I am sure we will soon be shooting back up the table.”
Optimistic noises as one might expect, but Towell firmly believes that it won’t take too much to restore Hibs’ fortunes, citing a tightening up at the back as Calderwood’s players have conceded ten goals and providing more chances for a strikeforce which has netted just three times in the league – all of them coming from Garry O’Connor.
He said: “I think when you look at Garry, Akpo and Junior you’d have to agree that’s a great forward line. Every single one of them is a terrific player and if we can supply them with more ammunition then I’m sure we’ll see each of them among the goals.
“We are all disappointed with the start to the season but, as a group of players, we remain confident that we can start stringing the results together we need to lift ourselves and our fans.”