Lewis STEVENSON admits he’d have found it hard to argue against those who were predicting another grim fight against the threat of relegation for Hibs on the evidence of the opening day of the season.
A 3-0 defeat by Dundee United at Tannadice, hard on the heels of two seasons of failure culminating in an 11th place finish, escaping the danger of the drop only on the penultimate game of the campaign made such a conclusion difficult to avoid.
Since then, though, Pat Fenlon’s side have confounded their critics, twice briefly topping the SPL table and will go into Sunday’s clash with the Tayside club separated from leaders Celtic only by goal difference. And, the little midfielder insisted, United will be confronted by a totally different proposition to that they faced away back in August.
The Easter Road re-match will also, he believes, allow Fenlon’s players to assess just how much progress they have made as the season enters the second round of fixtures as they meet a team he still firmly feels will be there or thereabouts when the dust settles, pointing to the way Peter Houston’s side have gathered themselves after an indifferent period of form to have begun ascending the table again over the course of their last few matches, the last of which saw them snatch a late winner against Motherwell at Fir Park.
Stevenson said: “I remember after the first match a lot of punters tipping us for relegation and, given the problems we’d had in the previous two years and the result that day, it was fair enough criticism. I could understand people thinking that way and writing us off even although only one game had been played.
“I’d probably have been saying the same if I didn’t know the group of boys we have in the dressing room and, I think, we have proved them wrong and I am sure United will see a big change in us from that day.”
Fenlon himself has accepted culpability for events at Tannadice, the manager quickly abandoning the 4-2-3-1 formation he’d adopted with, it has to be said, some measure of success throughout pre-season, opting instead for a more familiar 4-4-2 although Stevenson insisted that’s a far from rigid line-up.
He said: “Most teams play 4-4-2 but it’s one we can change when the manager wants. He has a few things up his sleeve. We aren’t a one-trick pony by any means and he’s made changes for home games, away matches, different opposition. We can adapt to whatever style he wants.”
If the merchants of doom and gloom were wildly out with their predictions as to how the season would pan out for Hibs, Stevenson believes he and his team-mates lay down a marker when they came from behind to earn a point from their next fixture, the first Edinburgh derby of the season. The fact everyone in green and white was disappointed not to have won rather than simply being content with a draw was, he claimed, an indication of the new mindset instilled by Fenlon at the start of his first full season as manager.
The Kirkcaldy-born star said: “Perhaps last year when we went a goal down we tended to crumble but we showed great desire to fight back. It kick-started our season and we have built on that ever since. Sure, there have been one or two setbacks, but we’ve bounced back each time.
“Again, last season if we lost a game we seemed to be beaten three or four in a row, that’s not happening now. Within games, as we showed against St Mirren, if we are losing we have the ability and the desire to go on to win and, even the ones we have lost, it’s been by the tightest of margins.”
And tight is how Stevenson would describe the look of the SPL table at present with each week throwing up, it seems, at least one result which raises eyebrows. He said: “There’s not a lot between top and bottom, every team seems capable of beating anyone else on the day.
“It’s not so long ago Inverness Caley were being tipped to struggle while St Johnstone’s manager Steve Lomas was said to be under pressure not so long ago and yet, like ourselves, they’ve managed to go on decent unbeaten runs.”
Sunday’s opponents have done likewise over the course of the past few weeks following a spell of poor results and will arrive in Edinburgh, claimed Stevenson, ready to prove his assertion that they won’t be too far away come the end of the season.
He said: “When you look at their squad it hasn’t really changed from last season when I felt that, outwith Celtic, they probably played the best football in the league. They have a lot of dangerous players so I’m sure it will be a tough game for both teams.”
Given Hibs striker Leigh Griffiths has scored 11 goals so far this season – six of them in his last four matches – and United hitman Johnny Russell has similarly struck a golden streak, taking his tally to seven with three in his last four games, Stevenson admitted he wouldn’t be surprised if Sunday’s crowd – and a nationwide television audience – are treated to something special.
He said: “Leigh has been unbelievable. He’s always capable of doing something special, he’s a big, big talent. Leigh and Eoin Doyle have struck up a great partnership, they work really well together and while Sparky might be getting the goals and the headlines at the moment, Eoin is just as capable of getting his fair share.”
Although Fenlon is operating with a smaller squad this season, competition for places appears just as intense as ever – as Stevenson has found to his cost, the 24-year-old struggling to regain his place in the team after breaking the big toe in his left foot against Hearts. Since mid-August, he’s managed just 78 minutes of first team action, all as a substitute and while he’s less than happy to find himself sitting on the bench, he admits he really doesn’t have much cause for complaint.
Honduran internationalist Jorge Claros, who replaced him in the derby, has become a fixture in Fenlon’s side, while Gary Deegan made his debut that day and was beginning to make his worth felt in the middle of the park when he had his jaw broken in an unprovoked early-morning attack outside a city centre nightspot.
Tim Taiwo has also arrived, the former Leeds United, Chelsea and Carlisle United youngster partnering Claros as Hibs defeated Motherwell and then St Mirren. Stevenson said: “The competition for places may not be good for me at the moment, but it is good for the club and the manager.
“It’s been really unfortunate what has happened to Gary but Jorge has been outstanding and Tim has come in and done well so while I’m gutted about not playing, I cannot complain because the team are playing well and getting results. It’s up to me to take my chance again when it comes.”