HIBS defender George Francomb declared himself “shattered” after Saturday’s SPL draw with St Mirren at Easter Road but displayed the type of resilience likely to be required in this weekend’s tricky quarter-final tie at Ayr United in the William Hill Scottish Cup.
Francomb admitted today that he had been laid low by a stomach virus prior to the 0-0 home draw with the Buddies but battled on to post an all-action display on the right flank.
“I think footballers always feel tired after games, but Saturday really hit me,” said the London-born 20-year-old, on loan at Hibs from Norwich City. “I had been a bit ill on Friday night – I had a bit of an upset stomach through the night, so maybe that played a bit of a part in it. I felt like I did a lot of running on Saturday, and as I came off the gaffer said to me: ‘You’re shattered, aren’t you?’ I said: ‘Yeah’, and he just gave me a tap on the back.
“I didn’t want to say anything before the game. I just wanted to get out there and get the job done, and we were unfortunate not to get the win, I thought. I’m not looking for any excuses. I feel all right now, to be fair.”
A lesser player suffering from illness may have slunk into the shadows for such a game, but Francomb’s prominent showing and willingness to be active in many of Hibs’ “set play” situations is testament to his enthusiasm for the game. As Hibs prepare to visit Ayr’s Somerset Park this weekend, he also carries a strong determination to hold on to a right-back role he has made his own in recent weeks.
With fellow loanee Matt Doherty, of Wolves, and Richie Towell waiting to pounce for the right-back berth, Francomb knows he must show many qualities – defensive and attacking – to impress manager Pat Fenlon.
“The way St Mirren were playing, with a narrow formation, I had to try and provide as much width as I could for us. I was getting up and down quite a lot all game. We had quite a lot of corners and I was taking them both sides and coming back. It was one of those games I think I put a decent shift in.
“That’s the kind of full-back I am – forward-thinking. I like to get forward and join in, get crosses in, and try to help as much going forward as in defence. As football has come on in the last ten-20 years, you’ve seen full-backs developing into players comfortable going forward, but a couple of decades ago they were just defenders. Now, you have to get up, you have to support attacks, and I enjoy doing that.
“It just comes part-and-parcel with the position nowadays. We work on it a lot in training – it’s about me and whoever’s playing left-back making sure we are providing a lot of width for the team.”
Having arrived at Easter Road only two months ago, Francomb has already witnessed a whirlwind of change at the club. When he arrived, he was expected to challenge Towell and Michael Hart for the right-back role; now, Hart has left, and Francomb and new man Doherty are front-runners for the position.
“The gaffer has brought in a lot of new faces but everyone seems to have gelled really well together in the changing room and out on the pitch,” said Francomb. “I think we’re heading in the right direction now.
“When I first got the call, I was just excited to come up and play for Hibs. A couple of weeks in, the gaffer has decided he has to strengthen the squad and bring in another five or six players for us. That’s what he’s done, and it’s working out well for us.
“There’s competition all over the pitch now. That’s good for the squad, I think. I was on the bench against Celtic and was obviously disappointed, but I have started the last three or four games since then. It happens in football – there are ups and downs – but you have to fight for your place here and I think that’s good for the team.
“I’m one of the new players who has come in – and helped change the club, hopefully.
“This season is all about having a good season here at Hibs, making sure we stay in the league, obviously, and hopefully, we can win the cup. That’s our objective: make sure we stay safe in the league, hopefully move up a couple of positions if we get a good string of results, and if we can go all the way in the cup, that would be excellent.
“Recently, we’ve been playing really well – apart from the Celtic game. Now, we’ve started to get a few points and the ball rolling, and the only way we are looking is to go forward and climb up the table even more.”
While there remains a natural pressure to perform well, Hibs, having gradually stretched their advantage over rivals Dunfermline, who lie bottom of the SPL, to four points, feel increasingly less the burden of gaining points. That will remain the case, says Francomb, as long as Hibs continue to steadily accrue league points (they have done so at a rate of a point per game in their last five matches) and while Dunfermline still find victories elusive (The Pars have won only twice since August).
“But, we’re still aware of Dunfermline below us,” adds Francomb. “We’re only four points above them, but now we’ve got a few good performances and results under our belts and the confidence starts to lift and now we start to look forward rather than below us.
“If we can get to the cup final, too, that would be an amazing experience. It’s going to be a decent end to the season for us.”
Achieving the second in his list of ambitions will require a victory for Hibs over Ayr United, whom Francomb and Co will face on Saturday.
“Ayr are obviously just going to make it as hard as they can for us at home,” he said. “It’s the cup – anything can happen – but we just have to be professional and if we play how we have been playing, we should win the game. I’ve heard of the ground and the fans and all that goes with it. That’s what happens in the cup – you go to these places, but you’ve just got to be professional and make sure you come back with a win and get into the semi-final.”
The intimidating atmosphere of Ayr’s Somerset Park has helped slay SPL teams already this season, with Inverness and Hearts having both been vanquished by a United side who are these days hitting top form in the First Division. The prospect of entering unforgiving surroundings fails to faze Francomb, a man who spent much of last season in the environs of Barnet’s modest Underhill Stadium while on loan at the English League 2 club.
“To be fair, some of the stadiums we played in last year in League 2 were pretty decent, though I’ve played in enough stadiums like that to be able to cope.”
Stomach bugs and Somerset Park may not represent the greatest challenges the promising young right-back will face in his career, but surmounting such obstacles – one down, one to go – will allow Francomb to prove his strength in the game.