Paul Heffernan today insisted the fact he and his Easter Road team-mates felt more than slightly disappointed at having to settle for a point from their clash with Scottish Premiership leaders Celtic is yet another indication of Hibs moving in the right direction.
After a miserable start to the season, losing the opening two league games to Motherwell and Hearts following the disaster which was the Europa League meeting with Swedish outfit Malmo, Pat Fenlon’s side have lost just one of their last nine games, a run which has propelled the Capital club firmly into the upper half of the table and into the quarter-finals of the League Cup.
Those early-season setbacks predated former Kilmarnock striker Heffernan’s arrival at Easter Road, the Dublin-born star the last of Fenlon’s ten summer signings as he completed the switch from Ayrshire to Edinburgh on transfer deadline day.
A 2-1 win over Killie – only days before the Rugby Park side shocked their own fans by allowing the popular hitman to leave on a free – stopped the rot and, since then, Heffernan claimed, there have been steady signs of improvement with, he believes, even better to come as Fenlon’s side continues to gel.
Admitting Hibs would most probably have settled for a point from the visit of Celtic before kick-off, Heffernan revealed any delight at achieving that target was replaced by a feeling of disappointment given Hibs had led thanks to his 18th-minute strike – albeit he agreed he’d been allowed to take advantage of being at least a yard offside – and almost had the finishing line in sight when James Forrest equalised at a time when the home team had been reduced to ten men with left back Ryan McGivern off the pitch receiving treatment for an injury.
The 31-year-old said: “Before the game, playing against the top team in the country we’d probably have taken a point but, in the changing-room afterwards, there was a little bit of disappointment we had not won the game.
“We’d gone ahead early, hung on, defended really well, kept our shape, shown great spirit only for Ryan to be off when their right winger goes and scores a great goal.”
Nevertheless, Heffernan believes Fenlon’s players can not only be happy at the obvious signs of progress being made, but in also silencing the critics who were all too ready to predict that the 3-0 defeat by Inverness Caley which ended a six-match unbeaten run would also signal a downward spiral.
That loss, however, was followed by a gritty display against Partick Thistle at Firhill which produced a 1-0 victory thanks to Liam Craig’s sixth goal of the season, even if it didn’t win Fenlon’s players many plaudits although the result became even more impressive as the Jags went on to become the first side to enjoy a victory over Caley on their own turf this season.
Heffernan said: “Every game isn’t going to be pretty and we got a bit of stick after the Partick match, I don’t think, though, that many teams will go there and beat them. They are a good side and they were certainly good that night but in the end it was, I thought, a good win and three good points.
“After the Caley game we didn’t want to lose two in a row particularly with the international break coming up and the prospect of Celtic. So it was a massive win at Firhill, it helped keep a bit of momentum going. You win 1-0 and the fans aren’t happy, you win 6-0 and they want seven which is fair enough as they pay their money and demand perfection from the team every time.
“Against Celtic they were superb, certainly the best at Easter Road since I’ve been here. The atmosphere was great and hopefully they will get behind us again against Aberdeen this weekend.
“I think they appreciated the lads had put in a great shift but they also helped as well. When the legs are getting that bit tired they can help you go that extra yard.
“I thought it was a tremendously well-disciplined display. We’d worked on it through the week, the team shape and what we wanted to do – to get in their faces and not let them dictate the pace of the game and I think it worked almost to perfection which it would have been had we hung on for 1-0.”
Fenlon’s tactics included Heffernan, favoured over £200,000 signing James Collins, plying that thankless role of lone striker, the 5ft 8in forward up against the 6ft 2in frames of Efe Ambrose and Virgil Van Dijk but, he insisted, it was a prospect which he didn’t consider daunting in the slightest.
He said: “They are two big lads but you have to get the right sort of service. There was no good the lads hanging balls up on the back stick or anything like that. I don’t think I’m going to win too many of them.
“But I think we played to my strengths, getting the ball into my feet for me to hold up and so let us get up the pitch a little bit. I’ve played up there by myself a lot of times. At Kilmarnock, we played one up-front with Dean Shiels just in behind, that sort of formation. In England I’d also played there. That’s the modern game, one striker and maybe a No. 10 playing off. To be honest, I was just happy to be playing because we have some good strikers at the club.”
Although Celtic boss Neil Lennon, when he wasn’t moaning about what he saw as an overly physical approach by Hibs – a charge vehemently denied by an angry Easter Road dressing-room – claimed the point Fenlon’s players earned was thanks to “three or four magnificent saves” from Ben Williams, Heffernan also pointed out that it was far from a backs-to-the-wall performance from him and his team-mates, particularly when French kid Abdellah Zoubir came in off the right flank to play in that No. 1 0 role.
Twice Heffernan and Zoubir almost linked up to create what could well have been a match winning second goal while Craig and Owain Tudur Jones also had reasonable efforts stopped by Celtic No. 1 Fraser Forster although, it has to be admitted, Williams was the busier goalkeeper throughout the second half.
Heffernan said: “We strikers tend to get the headlines when we score but I thought the back four and midfield were fantastic. There were blocks flying in, the guys in the middle put in such a shift, the unseen side of football that people do not notice. It’s not glamorous, but it’s invaluable to a team. They were doing it to a man and it was tremendous.
“Then Ben behind them was brilliant; the save he pulled off from Forrest in the last few minutes was incredible.
“But it wasn’t all backs-to-the-wall stuff from us, we played some foot stuff as well. We tweaked the formation a bit in the second half with Zouby coming in to lay behind me. I felt it worked really well, he managed to get on the ball a bit.
“We got little triangles going, created a few half-chances and had a couple of little moves where we did not quite get the final ball right. We are both new players at the club and we’ve obviously not played together before but I thought there were, again, signs of an understanding.
“There are little things happening all the time in training and in matches. We are happy with our form, with the way it is going and that we are picking up points. But I think we will improve as well to be honest. We have plenty of new players and hopefully we’ll be even better.”