Predictably the fall-out from Hibs’ weekend visit to Celtic Park has centred on the implications for the Glasgow club, the further dent it has put in their SPL title hopes and, in the longer term, the future of manager Neil Lennon should Rangers emerge as champions for the fourth year in succession.
Lennon’s attack on those of his own players whom he believes are little more than passengers piggy-backing on the efforts of others and the fact third-placed Celtic now trail Rangers by a massive 12 points with barely a third of the season gone have, as you would expect, hogged the headlines.
It has ever been thus when either side of the Old Firm find themselves on the end of an unexpected result, the outcome invariably attributed to their own shortcomings rather than the efforts of the opposition on the day. As such, Colin Calderwood and his players probably expected as little praise as they have received for prising a point from the Hoops. Granted, it didn’t quite fall into the category of, say, Ross County’s Scottish Cup semi-final win against Celtic, but for a team which had suffered a 4-1 mauling only a few days’ earlier it was, nonetheless, a result of some note.
To that extent Easter Road defender David Stephens today insisted that there should, at least, be some credit pushed in the direction of Calderwood and his squad, the only question on many lips prior to kick-off being just how many Hibs would lose by. However, despite that second half blitz, four goals in little more than 20 minutes, ending Hibs’ dream of glory in the Scottish Communities League Cup, Stephens was equally adamant he and his team-mates had made the journey along the M8 with little, if any, sense of trepidation.
He said: “More than anything, there was a determination not to let the same thing happen again. We played so well in the first half against them last Wednesday and we wanted to replicate that performance.”
Having negotiated, perhaps with more ease than they’d anticipated, their way through the opening 20 minutes, Calderwood’s players got to half-time without conceding but headed up the tunnel well aware it was the loss of a goal within two minutes of the restart in the preceding game which had been their undoing. Welsh Under-21 stopper Stephens said: “The plan was to still be in the game after 20 minutes and take it from there. The manager got into us at half-time and I think we came out more prepared than we were last week.”
Although there was a feeling that Celtic were perhaps a little “flat,” lacking in urgency and appearing to be content for something to happen rather than force the issue, Stephens claimed no-one should overlook the efforts of Calderwood’s players, adding: “I don’t think any credit should be taken away from us. Their crowd got behind them but were straight on their backs which worked in our favour. I would put it down to our work-rate, our hunger to get on the ball.”
While Calderwood might have been tempted to adopt a cautious approach to Saturday’s match, the Hibs boss went with the same formation as a few days’ earlier, albeit with four changes in personnel.
Even so, the emphasis once more was on youth, Stephens one of five players aged 21 and under in the starting line-up with three-quarters of the back line of those tender years, leaning heavily on the experience of goalkeeper Graham Stack and Sean O’Hanlon.
And again Stephens insisted credit should be given where it is due, the former Norwich City youngster adamant he wasn’t surprised in the slightest at Calderwood’s decision.
He said: “He believes in us and he knows what we can do. Since he has been here we have not shown what we can do perhaps as much as we should have. But he has kept faith in us and it paid off against Celtic, especially from a defensive point-of-view.
“But going forward we looked quite dangerous, the way we kept the ball which is something not many teams do at places like that. We didn’t go just to shut up shop, we played out of defence, kept the ball away from them and got into dangerous areas.
Celtic did hit the woodwork in either half through Gary Hooper and James Forrest but other than a couple of routine saves, Stack found himself probably less troubled than he might have anticipated.
Stephens, however, argued Hibs did more than enough to merit their point. He said: “Stacky was saying afterwards he hadn’t had a lot to do but if you are going to go to these places and take a point you are going to have to have a bit of luck. I think, though, it was a terrific performance all-round from us. Everyone was on top of his game and it was such a great feeling in the changing room to know we’d come away with a point when a lot of people had us down for nothing and, in fact, were only wondering how many Celtic might score.
“We’ve been taking a lot of criticism so it was satisfying to answer those critics in the best way possible, by doing our talking out there on the park.”
In recent weeks Calderwood had been among those critics, disappointed that what he was seeing on a daily basis at the club’s East Mains training centre wasn’t being replicated when it mattered most, on match days.
Stephens agreed his manager was perfectly entitled to demand as much, but having taken four points from two away matches – the draw at Celtic Park following a narrow win over St Mirren – he has his fingers crossed that, finally, Hibs can begin to look up.
However, before such a claim can be made, Stephens insisted he and his team-mates must initiate an upturn in their home form – starting with this weekend’s visit from Dunfermline, a side without a win in their last eight SPL outings.
Hibs, though, have won just one league match at home in ten months, leaving plenty of scope for improvement. The 20-year-old agreed, saying: “Taking four points from two away games with one of them being Celtic isn’t bad at all but we need to do better at home.
“We need to make Easter Road a fortress, a place no team wants to visit, somewhere we dictate the game and no-one else. I don’t think we can go saying the result against Celtic is a sign of us growing up. What has happened is the manager has shown great faith in us. He has been taking criticism but I am sure the fans can see things coming together and that’s credit to him.”