PAUL Cairney knows comparisons with last season are inevitable as Hibs continue to be the SPL’s surprise package, a run of five matches without defeat driving the Easter Road club into second place only months after ending one from bottom.
However, Cairney believes the more people try to do so the more they will find huge differences. The arrival of Tom Taiwo on a two-year deal to complete boss Pat Fenlon’s summer signing spree brought the number of new faces to nine as the Irishman set about fashioning a squad more to his liking.
But Cairney, the first of that influx, believes what possibly distinguishes the Hibs of today from that of the previous two seasons is that Fenlon’s side now have the bottle to match the green of their shirts having refound that winning mentality.
Such a characteristic has been evident in Hibs’ past few matches, St Johnstone boss Steve Lomas claiming Fenlon’s side had done nothing to merit their 2-0 win; a battling performance in which the Capital side twice came from behind to earn a point at Celtic Park and, Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels departing empty-handed but not quite sure how his team had ended up beaten. On each occasion, the observation has been made that the Hibs of last season would have struggled to avoid defeat, but the inescapable fact is that today’s team took seven points from those three games which, allied to their draw with Hearts and an away win over St Mirren, has given them the start their fans could probably only have dreamed of before a ball was kicked.
Incredibly, but for Michael Higdon’s late winner for Motherwell against Dundee, Hibs would now be out on their own at the top of the pile. As it is, Fenlon has happily settled for the present scenario given the trials and tribulations at Easter Road side in the past two years.
As he has pointed out, there is a desire and togetherness in his squad, while those long-suffering supporters are beginning to buy into his vision, recognising that while, as against Killie, performances may not always be outstanding, they will at least be guaranteed a team willing to roll up their sleeves and give all they have. Ahead of today’s home clash with Inverness Caley Thistle, Cairney said: “It wasn’t the best of performances against Kilmarnock, but what we did do was graft for the entire 90 minutes. We’ve got leaders throughout the team, a great resilience which, I think, we showed against Celtic and again when Killie equalised. A lot of people have said that perhaps last year we would have lost those sort of games, but now we keep fighting.
“I think we have that winning mentality now and the fans are right behind us. At half-time on Saturday, we knew we hadn’t played well, but were still a goal up. The fans played a real part in it, they got right behind us and gave us a lift when Killie had us under pressure towards the end of the game.
“We dug in and the fans responded. Hopefully we can keep this run going and we’ll have even more of them coming back to watch us play.
“Of course, people will want to make comparisons with last season. Hibs are a massive club and should never have been down there, so it is inevitable people will be looking to see what’s so different now.”
The win over Kilmarnock was Hibs’ second at home this season, a feat which took almost a full season to achieve last time, a miserable record which did much to undermine the club’s entire campaign.
Cairney said: “Two wins at home is pretty bad, but this is a new team, a new season. The gaffer has brought in new players, it’s his team and the way we have been playing we feel we can do well. We are unbeaten at home so far this season and that’s a record we want to maintain as long as possible. We want Easter Road to be a place where other teams feel more than a little worried.”
Having packed his squad with loan signings for the second half of last season, with the sole aim of steering Hibs clear of relegation, Fenlon has now had the chance to begin building a team of his own with an eye on the longer term and, as such, Cairney believes there is now stiff competition for places. Taiwo had to settle for a seat in the stand at the weekend as the necessary paperwork to allow him to join as a free agent outwith the transfer window was completed. He was joined as a spectator by Shefki Kuqi and Pa Kujabi while Northern Ireland defender Ryan McGivern got no further than the bench as Fenlon showed faith in the team which had drawn against Celtic. Former Partick Thistle star Cairney said: “You know that if you are playing well and working hard in training there should, hopefully, be no need to change the team. But you also just need to look at the bench and who is sitting in the stand to realise that if your standards drop even slightly, there are others ready to take your place.
“It keeps everyone on their toes, as we constantly have to impress the manager.”