Nine points may separate Hibs and Dundee United as they prepare to do battle at Easter Road tonight but, as far as Ryan McGivern is concerned, you’d have trouble getting a cigarette paper between the two clubs.
Although the Tannadice outfit clearly hold the upper hand over Terry Butcher’s side as they bid to amount an assault on a top-six finish, the two games between Hibs and United this season have ended in stalemate, McGivern’s claim there seems little to choose between them strengthened by the fact their last three clashes have ended in draws.
A Scott Robertson goal against his old club salvaged a point for Hibs, then under Pat Fenlon, in the Capital early in the season while Butcher took his side to Tayside a few weeks ago only to see them surrender a two-goal lead in the final ten minutes of the match,
However, with only seven games remaining before the “split,” McGivern and his team-mates know there’s no room for any such slip-up tonight should they find themselves in a similar position, Hibs going into the match three points behind sixth placed St Johnstone who travel to face high-flying Aberdeen tomorrow.
Pointing to the fact that Hibs’ matches against second-placed Aberdeen, a lofty 19 points in front, and Motherwell, battling to topple the Dons from that position, have all ended in narrow defeats, McGivern argues that on their day Butcher’s players are a match for anyone. However, he concedes that a lack of consistency has been their Achilles’ heel.
A winless run of five games has been partially corrected by four points from games against Ross County and Kilmarnock, thus rekindling hopes of making the top half of the Scottish Premiership for the first time in four seasons, a target which Northern Ireland internationalist McGivern insisted was still achievable.
The former Manchester City defender said: “To be honest, I don’t think there’s much between a lot of the teams and I think that’s shown in the games we’ve had against the clubs who are ahead of us in the table. It comes down to consistency and we’ve not always had that but I also believe that on our day we’ve shown we can give anyone a really tough time of it.
“The game at Tannadice in January is a case in point. We thought we deserved the three points having been two goals up with so little time left but we never saw it through which was very disappointing. Now it is a matter of focusing on the seven games we have to play. It would be good to get the three points tonight, pull ourselves level with St Johnstone and tweak the pressure on them a bit before they play tomorrow.
“But we have to look after ourselves. We can’t influence the outcome of any other game. We know what we have left ahead of us. It’s a case of taking it a game at a time but we know the sort of push we have to sustain if we are to challenge for top six.
“The boys are still convinced we can do it, there’s no reason to believe otherwise. I don’t think there’s anything to fear in any of the seven games we have coming up. There’s everything to play for and we’ll be giving our all in each match as it comes along which, hopefully, should get us there.”
Revealing he’s a fan of Friday night football, a game under the floodlights adding some “extra spice,” McGivern believes the inclusion of so many young, emerging talents whether they be in green and white or tangerine, will provide an armchair audience with plenty of excitement although he hopes live television won’t deter the fans from both clubs turning up to cheer on their team.
United youngsters Andy Robertson, Ryan Dow, Nadir Ciftci, Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Gauld and John Souttar – although the latter two are doubtful because of injury – have been in the spotlight all season, rightly earning themselves plenty of plaudits in the estimation of Easter Road boss Butcher who also believes his own kids have probably not received as much attention because Hibs have enjoyed, in general, a somewhat indifferent season.
Sam Stanton, though, has exploded onto the scene in recent weeks with a string of man-of-the-match performances, scoring twice in four matches and providing an “assist” to striker Danny Haynes against Kilmarnock last week, earning himself a call-up to the Scotland Under-21 squad for Wednesday’s friendly against Hungary alongside team-mate Danny Handling and United’s Gauld, Souttar and Armstrong.
Recalling his own first international call-up for the full Northern Ireland side to play Scotland at Hampden before he won the first of his Under-21 caps, he predicted Stanton’s already sky-high confidence will have been sent soaring.
He said: “I did it the other way round to Sam and Danny which was a bit unusual but it’s a major achievement for the boys to get that international recognition.
“Sam has been a revelation in the past few weeks, his performances have been there for everyone to see. He has great potential, has a good career ahead of him and he fully deserves his Scotland call. It’s great for the boys, it shows their performances have been noticed and it’s a great opportunity for them to go and do as well as they can for their country.
“United have enjoyed a lot of youngsters making the breakthrough, they’ve had a lot of publicity and deservedly so, but we’ve also got plenty of talented young boys, not just Sam and Danny but Jordon Forster who’s been virtually an ever-present, Alex Harris who’s come back well from injury and Jason Cummings.
“It’s brilliant to see so many young players coming through and I’m sure they’ll provide the fans with plenty of excitement.”
As Stanton and Handling contemplate the Under-21s match at Tannadice and Cummings an Under-19 friendly against Switzerland at Livingston’s Energy Assets Arena on the same night, McGivern will be further afield, part of Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland squad which will travel to Cyprus with the prospect of a mini-tour of South America to come at the end of the season when they will play Uruguay in Montevideo and Chile in Valparaiso.
McGivern, capped 19 times, said: “It’s always nice to be called up, to be involved with your country and to catch up with the lads. Hopefully I’ll get some game time in Cyprus while it would be fantastic to be part of it all again in June with the chance to play against two great nations with the quality players they have just a few days before they play in the finals of the World Cup in Brazil.
“But that’s something to look forward to later on. At the moment there’s unfinished business at Easter Road, starting tonight.”