Big interview: Stevie Mallan on his Hibs form slump, free-kicks and Neil Lennon
Steven Mallan feels his own season probably reflects that of Hibs', a scintillating start in which the Easter Road club climbed to second place in the Premiership table followed by a slump which has seen them slip to eighth.
A summer arrival from Barnsley where his move from St Mirren had turned sour, Mallan thrilled the Hibs support with a string of stunning strikes from long distance.
But as Neil Lennon’s side suddenly hit a seven match winless run and began to drop down the ratings, the goals dried up for Mallan, who has now not found the back of the net in three months.
Admitting he possibly set himself up for a fall with that early-season promise, the 22-year-old said: “I started off with a bang. It did level off towards the end of the first half of the season, which I did know myself. I had meetings with the manager to get me back to where I was, to get my high standards back.
“I came into new club and was obviously buzzing. I know that latterly my performances have not where I’ve wanted them to be. I know how I can play. I can make them a lot better.
“I hit a few great goals at the start. I maybe shot myself in the foot by getting off to such a flyer. I was on cloud nine over the first two months. I thought I was going to Real Madrid! I scored some cracking goals.”
Mallan, however, remains confident the goals will return, revealing his ability to strike from range, either from free-kicks or open play, owes everything to hours spent as a youngster working on that particular art.
He said: “I do put time into working on my shooting, on the free-kicks, a lot more when I was younger than I do now. I had more time back then. When I was bored at school I would take a bag of balls, which my dad always made sure I had, and I would hit free-kicks through sheer boredom.
“I always played football and wanted to make sure I had a different side to my game which would put me ahead of the rest. Every side I played in, I was on set-pieces, corners and free-kicks, which are so important in football.
“So, I would be there on my day off, with a seven a-side goal in front of a full sized goal – I’d used it as a wall – I’d have a few friends with me and I would practice. I reaped the benefits of that at the start of the season and, honestly, I’m dying for one now.
“You’ve got to work hard. At every club I’ve been at, the boys ask me how I got my technique when it comes to actually hitting the ball, and it’s years of practice, it’s not something which comes naturally.
“If you’re a boy who doesn’t take a lot of free-kicks, you will hit the ball differently from those of us who take them regularly. It’s like a golf swing. You practice, practice, practice.
“My dad would video from behind the goal so I could study my technique. As the years went on I changed a little bit.
“I would count how many steps I’d take, which foot went in front of the other, just that repetitiveness. It helps with you seeing the goal and it’s paid off.
“Hey, I was woeful at the start. The ball was flying everywhere. A few windows got threatened.”
There’s no such danger posed nowadays, but Mallan insisted he and his team-mates were determined to use this week’s training camp in Dubai to get their season back on track and so repay the significant investment made in flying them out to the United Arab Emirates to allow them to work in the sunshine of the Middle East.
He said: “This is the first time I have been away at this stage of the season so it’s quite refreshing. We got a few days off before the trip which gave us time to recuperate and take a step back in football – and now we’re back at it this week.
“It’s nice to get away, it’s great for the club to invest in this so the boys can take themselves away from the football in Scotland. And now we are back training, back being a squad and you can only thrive in an environment like this.”
And if some Hibs fans have questioned the club’s decision to go to such expense, 22-year-old Mallan is confident they’ll see the rewards when Lennon’s side return to action, a Scottish Cup tie against Elgin City on January 19 preceding their next league game away to Motherwell four days later.
He said: “As a team, we know we shouldn’t be where we are in the league. We know some of our performances haven’t been the best. The good games were against Rangers and Celtic, and as a team we need to take those performances against the so-called bigger teams to the ones near the bottom of the league.
“We need to start performing better. We should not be eighth, not this club. The manager has reiterated most days that the standards haven’t been as he wanted them to be. We do have a half-season to go and I’m sure everyone will give their all to improve.
“We’ve had too many draws. We win them and we would be having a different conversation.”
Lennon has made his unhappiness at the way Hibs’ season has turned clear for all to see and Mallan revealed that the head coach hasn’t said anything in public that he hasn’t said to him and his team-mates.
“The manager says it the way it is,” said the former Scotland Under-21 player. “He will tell us before he said anything in public. The standards are not what they should have been. It’s not as if what he said hasn’t been true. We know what we have to do.
“When results aren’t going your way, you need someone on your back. That’s the kind of manager you want. He’s not the type to take a back seat and let us get on with our own thing. He is on our backs every day, making sure training is always good.
“I actually wouldn’t say our standards have dropped per se but there have been frustrating games. We drew with St Mirren at home, we drew with Livingston, we were 2-0 up on Dundee and drew 2-2.
“We need to start showing our supporters where Hibs are as a team and begin to get up that table.”