Terry Butcher says so and even Gary Locke agrees. But the Hibs support are still going to need some convincing that the Easter Road side can avoid the trauma of a relegation play-off.
To say it wasn’t a good weekend for the Edinburgh club is stating the obvious. Yet another derby defeat – the fourth of the season – was bad enough but, combined with results elsewhere in the Scottish Premiership’s bottom six, it leaves Butcher’s side just one point clear of the danger zone now occupied by Kilmarnock.
Of course, Hibs’ future remains very much in their own hands, but after six straight defeats – a run now amounting to just one win in 15 league matches – there is little wonder the natives are getting more than a touch restless, defeat by Hearts sparking a small demonstration outside the main stand following the final whistle.
Being beaten once more by a Hearts side already relegated was seen by those disappointed and angry fans as simply rubbing their noses in it as their season has fallen apart around them to the extent many genuinely worry about following the Jambos into the Championship.
Week by week they have seen little, if anything, to persuade them it will be otherwise, but, Butcher insisted, go beyond the bald statistic of the scoreline and there is good reason to believe that, provided his players produce similar performances in their remaining games against Partick Thistle, Ross County and Kilmarnock, then their top-flight status will be secured without recourse to that play-off safety net.
“I thought that was the best we’ve played for a long, long time,” claimed the Hibs boss. “I can’t remember the last time we played as well as that,” before being forced to concede his side had, in all too depressingly familiar fashion, conspired to “shoot themselves in the foot”, Hearts defender Callum Paterson allowed a free jump to connect with Billy King’s corner and then repeating the trick as he met Kevin McHattie’s free kick to score twice in the space of four first-half minutes.
Jordon Forster was culpable on both occasions, but the young centre half, who had an equalising goal wrongly chalked off when the Capital’s big two met at Tynecastle only a few weeks ago, threw his team a lifeline, powering home a header from Ryan McGivern’s cross, his third of the season.
But a second goal by a side which hadn’t scored in its previous four matches proved too much, substitute James Collins passing up a glorious opportunity to equalise when he took a “fresh air” shot at the ball after Liam Craig had charged down McHattie’s clearance.
Butcher argued, and with some justification, that Paterson’s goals had come against the run of play, Hibs appearing to have just got into their stride before he was gifted his first.
The Hibs boss said: “I don’t think we deserved to lose the game – we lost the game ourselves with two poor pieces of marking. Paterson has got two free headers, it’s 2-0 and all the good work is undone. But full credit to Hearts, they had two opportunities and took them.”
Butcher, though, was heartened by his team’s response after the interval as Alex Harris and, latterly, substitute Duncan Watmore made headway down the flanks, with Kevin Thomson – outstanding according to his boss – surprise selection Scott Robertson after a three month lay-off and skipper Craig dominating in the middle of the park, although Ryan Stevenson had a late opportunity to defray those late Hearts nerves only to dink his shot beyond Ben Williams and the goalkeeper’s far post.
The big Englishman said: “I thought the boys played really well and if we can take that sort of quality of performance, that fight and determination into the next three matches we will be fine.
“I have been in this position as a player and manager. You need to grab and hold on to things that are positive and I think there are lots of things that were positive.”
The test for Butcher and his players now is to reproduce the same intensity, desire and commitment, along with some of the decent football played on this occasion into the closing days of the season.
Butcher added: “I am confident that if we play like we did against Hearts, the pressure in a derby match knocking it about as we did in testing Hearts all the way, with players taking responsibility on the ball and showing a lot of bottle, a lot of fight, then I think we will come through the next three games well.”
To that end, Butcher found an unlikely ally in Locke, who, while naturally delighted with his own team and the victory, said: “Hibs have good players, they gave Terry everything, which in the position they are in is the least you would expect.
“I fully expect them to stay up. They put us under a lot of pressure, we found the second half very difficult and with that pride and commitment in their next couple of games they will win.”
Certainly, the accusation hurled at them by Ben Williams at the beginning of the week that they were “soft and spoiled” was answered by the sort of display which many felt his team was capable of producing but was all too often missing,
Butcher was happier with the shape of his team and the blend of experience and youth, saying: “I thought Kevin Thomson was outstanding. It’s really good to see him back to his best and the way he can play. Jason Cummings is only 18 but he did well up front, holding the ball up and with Alex Harris getting down the wings we looked like we could carve teams open.
“The boys showed a good bit of quality under pressure and when you are 2-0 down at home in a derby you have to show some bottle. The last thing you want to do is cave in.
“But we showed a lot of fight second half and I thought we should have come away with something from the game.”
It’s been a while since Butcher could make that particular claim. His side are still the lowest scorers in the league, but in terms of chances created and working the opposition goalkeeper, few could begrudge the Hibs boss his renewed sense of optimism. Better late than never, you might say.