The prospect of Hibs going into the last game before the SPL split as a 200/1 shot to make the top six would have been unthinkable as they took the challenge to Celtic in the early months of the season, briefly topping the table in October and duly taking command of the battle for second place up until early December.
Yet those are the humongous odds anyone entering a bookmaker could get on the permutation the struggling Easter Road side require tomorrow: a Hibs win at champions-elect Celtic; Dundee United to draw with Aberdeen; and basement side Dundee to win at Kilmarnock.
In short, Hibs appear to have as much chance of selecting the Grand National winner as they do of claiming a place in the top six. It is a dispiriting situation for a club whose supporters were dreaming of a return to Europe only a few months ago.
Tim Clancy is adamant the Easter Road will go all out for a win at Parkhead and then hope for the best elsewhere. But even if, as looks likely, they are consigned to the bottom six, the Irish right-back feels it would be harsh for this season to be written off as a failure.
While he acknowledges that results haven’t been good enough in recent months, Clancy argues that the evenly-matched nature of the SPL this season outwith Celtic and Dundee meant the scrap for top-six places was always likely to boil down to which sides were able to find their form as winter gave way to springtime. Hibs haven’t been one of them. Clancy also doesn’t buy the notion that the SPL’s bigger clubs like Hibs, Aberdeen, Dundee United and Hearts should hang their head in shame at being left in the slipstream of less-illustrious rivals.
As someone who has played for smaller clubs like Kilmarnock and Motherwell, both of whom are currently top-six-bound, Clancy has become accustomed to viewing most sides outwith the Old Firm on an equal footing, insisting that player for player, the traditional bigger clubs have no obvious advantage these days over the smaller clubs.
“I don’t think you can look at it as smaller clubs and bigger clubs,” he said. “I was at Motherwell last season and they’ve got a really good core of players who know each other inside out. There’ll be a lot of interest in their players at the end of the season. Even at Inverness, Andrew Shinnie’s already signed for Birmingham, so that shows the calibre of players these teams have got. Ross County were the unknown quantity. For us, it’s about being more consistent because we’ve shown on our day that we can beat anyone in this league.
“We got ourselves in a strong position earlier in the season, but I don’t think we’re doing much differently to what we were doing back then. We’ve had a few games we’ve been unlucky in and we’re just not getting the results we were getting before for whatever reason. Outside Celtic, Dundee and maybe Motherwell, there’s pretty much nothing between the teams; we’re all fairly evenly matched. When it’s all so tight, it’s important to beat the teams around you in the middle of the table and we obviously haven’t done that enough this season.
“We’re in the position we’re in because we’ve not picked up enough points. We’re disappointed with that, but I still think there’s been progression from last season. I can’t put my finger on why we’ve lost our way recently. It’s such a tight league that pretty much every team has had a run where they’ve not won as consistently they’d have liked or where they’ve gone on a wee run of wins. Look at St Johnstone, they had a bad start and then had a run of five straight wins and that put them in a good position.
“If we had started the season down around tenth or 11th and then just come with a late run like Kilmarnock have had to sneak into the top six on the last weekend, people would have looked at it as a great season, but we’ve done it the other way round. We were in the top six all the way pretty much from September until last weekend, so there’s definitely been progress from last season. Even when we were doing well at the start of the season, there was never a big gap between us and the rest of the pack. It’s always been tight, but because we were up in second for a bit we probably raised expectations a bit.”
Two of those results that helped increase optimism around Easter Road came against tomorrow’s opponents, with a 2-2 draw at Celtic Park – a game in which Clancy scored – in September followed by a 1-0 win at home to the Glasgow side in December. If Hibs are to have any chance of a miraculous return to the top six, they will need to find a way of arresting their poor recent form and making it seven points from a possible nine against the league leaders this season. All this on a day when Neil Lennon’s men have the incentive of knowing they will be crowned champions for a second year running if they win and Motherwell lose.
“Hopefully we can get a result and then pray things go our way elsewhere,” said Clancy. “We’ve just got to concentrate on our own task. It won’t be easy, but if we play to our best, we know we can get a result. We’ll take heart from our results against Celtic this season, but what’s gone before won’t have any bearing on this game.
“The fact Celtic can win the league doesn’t make any difference to us because they go out to win every game they play anyway. They’ll probably have a full house there, but we’re not bothered about stopping them winning the league; we just want to win for ourselves. If we go there with the same attitude we showed when we drew there earlier in the season, then we’ve got a chance. You get a bit more time on the ball through there, but when they attack it can be quite intense so we need to be on our game defensively and hope our offensive players are on song or that we can nick something from a set-piece.”
Clancy, of course, has been largely exempt from blame for Hibs’ slump since the turn of the year as he only returned to action last weekend after being sidelined by a hamstring injury since late January. Indeed, a quick glance at the games the Irishman has played this season shows Hibs have generally been at their best with him involved. Clancy may have seemed injury-prone this season, but he’s adamant that’s not the case. “It was great on a personal level to be back on the pitch against Inverness,” he said. “I’ve had my fair share of injuries this season, so it was good to get 90 minutes under my belt. I’ve had a few injuries in the past, but this has probably been my most frustrating season in terms of injuries. I had the groin/stomach injury earlier in the season which lasted about ten weeks and then I played five or six games and got injured again, so it’s been very stop-start and frustrating.
“I’m not an injury-prone player, though. Normally when I’ve had injuries before, it’s been pretty bad ones that have kept me out for a long time. That was the first time in my life I’ve ever had a hamstring injury; normally I don’t get muscle injuries so I’m not used to picking up niggles like that. Hopefully that’s all the injuries out the way until the end of the season.”