Paul Cairney today insisted Hibs are back where he has always felt they belonged after Pat Fenlon’s new-look Easter Road side shook off two seasons of failure to go top of the SPL table for the second time in the space of a month.
Their stays at the summit have, of course, been brief, with champions Celtic reasserting themselves as favourites to retain their title, although Neil Lennon’s players, who have a game in hand on Hibs, are out in front this time only on goal difference.
It is, however, a remarkable scenario, given the trials and tribulations Hibs fans have been put through over the course of the past couple of years, sinking to tenth and then 11th in the rankings, shaking off the threat of relegation only in the penultimate game of last season as they condemned Dunfermline to the drop.
Even more so when you consider Hibs’ chances of survival this time were virtually being written off following an opening-day hammering by Dundee United, which appeared to promise nothing but more of the same for those long-suffering supporters.
While the make-up of Fenlon’s side has not drastically changed since that day on Tayside in August, Peter Houston’s men will travel to Edinburgh on Sunday well aware they will be facing an entirely different proposition.
This Hibs team boasts the best home record in Scotland’s top flight, one which has displayed a resilience and determination too often sadly lacking in the recent past.
The latest exhibition of those qualities was evident as Hibs came from behind to defeat St Mirren on Saturday, in doing so ensuring they have gathered more points on their own turf than they did in the whole of last season when they won just two league games. Their overall total now amounts to two-thirds of that gained by the middle of May.
Hibs may have caught many by surprise with their exploits thus far, but today Cairney claimed he had always believed they were capable of doing so when he made his summer move from First Division Partick Thistle to Easter Road, although he accepted that, while having that faith in the squad then being assembled by Fenlon was one thing, making it happen was an entirely different matter altogether.
The 25-year-old said: “The fans went through so much last season but now, thankfully, we are giving them something to cheer about. To be honest, I always felt a club of this size should be up there. We’ve got a fantastic training ground, a terrific stadium and now a team that is doing well.
“I think last season every team wanted to come here, but that’s not the case this year. I think other clubs are starting to get more than a bit wary of coming here and hopefully that will continue.
“Going top of the league was a great feeling. We’d talked about it before the game and of how we’d had a few chances earlier in the season but hadn’t taken them until we did it with that win over Dundee. Now we are joint top with Celtic after their draw against Dundee United which is brilliant for everyone.”
The win over the Buddies was done the hard way, with Hibs conceding the opening goal to a long-range strike by Kenny McLean. As many who witnessed the weekend match noted, such a blow over the course of the last couple of years would most likely have proved to be too much for Hibs to overcome. That was then, though, and this is now. Fenlon’s side hit back with two more goals by their talismanic striker Leigh Griffiths, who took his tally for the season to 11. He could well have added a couple more to that figure as he twice hit the post before having another trademark strike ruled out for offside.
Griffiths, naturally, has hogged the headlines thanks to his success in front of goal, the 22-year-old having scored in each of his last four games and made it eight goals in just six matches. But Cairney said: “Leigh’s looking unplayable at the moment, but it’s a team game and I’m sure he’d agree it’s everyone who is giving him the chances to go and score the goals he has.
“He was so unlucky against St Mirren. Half-an-inch the other way and the two shots which hit the post would have gone in, while it looked a tight offside decision against him. It’s always the way of things that the guys scoring goals put themselves in the spotlight, but I don’t think you could pick out anyone as not being on top of his game at the moment.”
Griffiths’ goals may have sealed the win, but Cairney points out that there has also been a shift in Hibs’ mentality. Having won four of their six games at Easter Road – the other two have been draws – the Leith club once again took an important step towards once again turning Easter Road into an intimidating venue for opposition clubs and in doing so, maintained the winning habit in the minds of the players.
“We had to do it the hard way as we made a poor start and we have to give credit to the defence and goalkeeper for doing well,” he said. “The gaffer told us at half-time to up it a bit, to get in their faces and we did that. We’ve got a winning mentality and we know if we go a goal down we have the players to get back into the game. But you have to give credit to St Mirren. They kept going even when they went down to ten men with Jim Goodwin being sent off.”
While the majority of Scottish football fans feel it is only a matter of time until Celtic start to pull away from the chasing pack, Cairney insisted he and his team-mates are determined to stay as close as they can to the Glasgow side for as long as possible.
He said: “We’ve done well so far, but now we want to kick on, build on what we’ve achieved so far and to get better and better.
“If we can keep tight to Celtic as the weeks go by then we’ll know we are in the right place. We want to be up there challenging.”