IVAN SPROULE reckons you can make as many excuses for Hibs as you want – but none of them will cut any ice with him.
A change of manager mid-season, a raft of new players brought in and constant chopping and changing of the team as boss Pat Fenlon seeks that winning formula can easily be counted among the reasons why the Easter Road side find themselves in a desperate battle against relegation.
So, too, could the fact that Hibs possibly caught both Celtic and Motherwell at the wrong time, Neil Lennon’s side more or less handed the title with the ten-point deduction levied on cash-strapped Rangers while that penalty has given the Fir Park club the incentive of Champions League football next season. Only a superior goal difference keeps Fenlon’s team above basement outfit Dunfermline but even that advantage has been eroded thanks to nine goals conceded in the space of just five days, adding to the dismal tally of 54 conceded in the SPL so far – an average of two a game.
Even scoring three in Lanarkshire the other night wasn’t enough, Motherwell claiming four to leave Fenlon with only one league win to his name since succeeding the sacked Colin Calderwood although, on the plus side, he has steered the club into the last eight of the William Hill Scottish Cup.
The Irishman has talked in recent weeks of dragging others into the danger zone but Inverness Caley, the closest side to them, remain eight points clear of the drop zone with neither Hibs or Dunfermline showing much sign of catching them.
Today Sproule insisted that remains a fight for another day, the more pressing matter on his mind being to find a way to return Hibs to the winning trail, or to at least gain sufficient points to ensure that whoever eventually falls into the First Division, it isn’t the team wearing green and white. As straight-talking as always, Sproule didn’t shirk away from discussing Hibs’ predicament, one he and Garry O’Connor could never have envisaged as they returned to the club last summer. Making it clear he was far from absolving himself for any of the team’s shortcomings since last July, the Northern Ireland star said: “It’s a combination of things.
“We have had a change of gaffer, a new gaffer in, the changing of players again. Sometimes the team is chopping and changing but I suppose that’s to do with the performances of players and there is nothing the manager can do about that. You can make all the excuses you can find, but to me it comes down to a dog-fight and that’s what we are in now. I wish I was standing talking about the sort of push that Motherwell are on at the minute but we are not at that stage.
“It’s going to be difficult, it’s not enjoyable going out every day knowing you are bottom of the league. It’s our livelihoods that are at stake and if we do not turn this around quite sharpish then there’s going to be consequences.”
Fenlon himself has been saying as much for a number of weeks now, the odd glimmer of hope such as the successive clean sheets clocked up against Kilmarnock and Aberdeen and the back-to-back wins over Cowdenbeath and Dunfermline quickly forgotten as Hibs have failed to build on those results.
Positives may be increasingly hard to find for the Hibs support but having conceded five goals against Celtic last weekend, Sproule believes he and his team-mates continue to show signs that they can find that elusive victory, although he agreed that, to do so, they’ll have to stop making it easy for opposing sides to find the back of their net.
He said: “It’s been a tough week. Possibly we got Celtic at the wrong time, but we also shot ourselves in the head. Maybe it was also the wrong time to get Motherwell given their recent record but we went to Fir Park, scored three goals and created some more chances as well.
“All credit to Motherwell, they are a good side with players who are probably playing at the top of their game whereas we maybe have players who are that wee bit fragile. Football is an easy game when things are going for you but we cannot think about anyone else, we have to concentrate on ourselves. It’s a scrap, but no-one is chucking it. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out it’s between Dunfermline and ourselves. The gaffer has talked of dragging others into it but first and foremost it’s about getting away from Dunfermline and then we can start looking at the rest.
“I’d love us to get a result for the players but I would love it for the gaffer because he really must be pulling his hair out. He is giving us everything on the training ground and trying to instil confidence in the players.”
The week won’t get any easier for Hibs when they travel to Kilmarnock tomorrow knowing they’ll arrive at Rugby Park to face another side which is also smarting following their 4-0 hammering by Dundee United on Tuesday night. Killie boss Kenny Shiels and his son, Dean, a former team-mate of Sproule’s both at Easter Road and in the Northern Ireland set-up, are both personal friends of the Hibs star but he insists that will count for nothing on either side.
He said: “The likes of Kilmarnock, Dundee United, St Johnstone and Hearts are all fighting to get into the top spaces, there isn’t a team which has nothing to play for. Even the sides further down don’t want to be dragged back into it while Dunfermline and ourselves are fighting for our lives.
“Killie were beaten 4-0 the other night but that’s the beauty of this league, I suppose. We were pumped 5-0 then went to Fir Park and scored three only to emerge from the game with nothing which is hard to take and very disappointing.
“I know Kenny Shiels and Dean very well, they are both winners. I think Kenny has done fantastically well, he’s taken Killie to a cup final and while they’ve maybe been a bit indifferent in the league, they are still mid-table which, I think, is good for his first season.
“Dean is one we’ll have to keep an eye on, he’s had a fantastic season and thoroughly deserves his Northern Ireland recall. Kenny and Dean are both personal friends but that goes out the window tomorrow. They’ll want the three points but for us, as I have said, livelihoods are at stake.”