A FEW days ago, Morton’s visit to Easter Road was being viewed as yet another pivotal match in Hibs’ season, one which might have offered the Greenock side the chance to cut the gap to four points – and with a game in hand over Neil Lennon’s players.
However, Jim Duffy’s side will pitch up in Edinburgh tomorrow night ten points adrift of the Championship leaders, having fallen to their first defeat at Cappielow in almost a year, Dunfermline having pulled off a surprise win just as Hibs themselves were all but ending Falkirk’s interest in the title.
While admitting it now looks as if it is all over bar the shouting, former Hibs and Morton player Derek Collins believes that, with the Capital club due to travel to Greenock just ten days later, Ton boss Duffy will still sense there’s an outside chance of turning up the heat on Lennon’s players.
He said: “I’d imagine the weekend result would have been a bitter disappointment for Jim and his players but I’d also think it’s something that won’t be mentioned.
“Obviously, it will have a bearing on tomorrow night’s game and it’s possibly a last chance for Morton but having what are almost back-to-back games puts a slightly different complexion on things.
“A win for Morton would cut the gap to seven points while having a game in hand and with Hibs still having to go to Cappielow where Morton’s home record has been outstanding over the past 12 months.
“However, I believe a win is a must for Jim and his players while a draw would be an okay result for Hibs. It would take them 11 points ahead of Falkirk and maintain the gap between them and Morton although I’m sure Neil will be going into the game looking for the win.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Jim tries to play some mind games, writing off Morton’s chances and telling us all the title is Hibs’ to lose. It is, of course, up to Jim to play it as he sees fit but my thoughts would be to try to push the pressure on to Hibs.
“It’s a wee bit like Leicester City last season when Claudio Ranieri was being asked every week if they were going to win the title that coming Saturday. The Hibs fans will be sitting trying to work out just when they are going to do it.”
Collins, of course, was a member of the Hibs side which charged to the old First Division title almost 20 years ago under the guidance of Alex McLeish and he fully understands the weight of expectation Lennon’s players have been labouring under this season, their third in the second tier of Scottish football.
The 47-year-old, who now works in property development, said: “I think that with Hearts and Rangers now out of the league, everyone expected Hibs to win the title with some ease, especially with the start they made to the season.
“It’s a difficult transition to make when a club is relegated. That old saying that there’s no-one too big to go down is spot-on. It’s a different environment and you have to adjust accordingly as Dundee United have probably discovered. You become the big fish in the smaller pond and so the expectations on you are that much greater.
“Hibs have probably dropped more points than anyone would have liked or expected, but the chasing teams haven’t been able to close the gap and now, as we go into the business end of the season, the games are starting to run out.”
And that’s where Collins, who holds the record number of appearances for Morton, 534 games over two spells as he featured in all four divisions with the Greenock club, believes the experience Lennon has of winning titles both as a player and manager at Celtic will come into its own.
He said: “Obviously as a player at Celtic he was in a very good position. Generally speaking, they probably expect to win 99 per cent of their games. But, as a manager, Neil has been in different environments, at Celtic, Bolton Wanderers and now Hibs.
“He can adjust and adapt. He knows what it takes to get things over the line, particularly at a time when it’s so close but yet so far away. That will stand his players in good stead.
“Yes, Hibs have had off days, every team does, but it’s all about consistency and despite the disappointments they might have had they’ve only been beaten once since the beginning of December and only three times all season which is a terrific record.
“With so few games left it will be a case of taking it week-by-week, focusing on the match coming up, doing whatever it takes to get the three points and then moving on to the next one.”
While Duffy might admit privately that any hope of pulling off a shock title win has now gone, Collins insisted the season still holds the promise of some reward for his old club in the shape of a play-off place.
And to that end he doesn’t expect Duffy’s players to start slackening off but instead redouble their efforts to clinch second place.
He said: “I think Morton have done really well this season. They came up last year, finished fifth but then lost a clutch of players like Declan McManus, Denny Johnstone, Bobby Barr and Luca Gasparotto while Jai Quitongo has been missing for months because of injury.
“Unfortunately in football, you can lose a number of players at the end of any season but it looks as if what happened last year has given Jim something of a blueprint to work on. He’s brought in players to replace those who left, like for like or, if you look at the way things have gone for them, possibly even better.
“Morton, as their home record shows, have been very consistent and have won a lot of games by a single goal which shows tremendous resilience.
“Most people probably thought they’d be in and around the middle of the table again but to be up there, separated only by goal difference from Falkirk who went close to winning promotion via the play-offs last season, just shows how well things have gone.
“Now they’ll be looking to take second place which would save them two play-off games and, to be honest, I don’t think they’d have anything to fear if they found themselves fighting it out with the second bottom team in the Premiership.
“They got to the semi-final of the League Cup, beating Kilmarnock and Hamilton on the way, so facing a so-called bigger team in the play-offs wouldn’t faze them in the slightest.”
Bearing in mind Morton have two games in hand over Falkirk, Collins doesn’t expect Duffy to send his side out with all guns blazing tomorrow night. He said: “I expect it to be a tight game without too many goals although it would be fantastic for the supporters if they could see a few.”