Darren McGregor: It would be easy to slip up against bottom three
As a lifelong Hibs fan, Darren McGregor knows from bitter experience that the Easter Road side are never more vulnerable than when they go into matches as out-and-out favourites.
So, going by that yardstick, he realises the Capital club’s next three games could have quite a bearing on their ambition for a third-place finish – or even higher – in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Against tomorrow’s opponents Partick Thistle, Tuesday night’s visitors Hamilton and next Saturday’s trip to take on Ross County, Neil Lennon’s side will face three of the top flight’s bottom three clubs in the space of just six days.
On the face of it, admitted McGregor, Hibs fans will be looking for nothing less than the maximum nine points which, should that target be achieved, would leave them in a very healthy position going into the split which would thereafter follow.
But, warned the defender: “Football isn’t played on paper. I think the majority of fans will be looking at them as three of the easier games which, if we are talking factually, they are. However, sometimes they can be the hardest of the lot.
“These are the banana skins in the past on which Hibs have slipped because of complacency and looking beyond the next opponent as to what’s coming up.”
Asked for an example, it didn’t take McGregor more than a split-second to reply. “Ayr United last season,” he said. “It’s a classic example. We had the chance to make it six straight league wins at the start of the season for the first time in the club’s history, we were at home and we lost 2-1.
“We haven’t beaten Hamilton this season, Ross County have run us close on both occasions and, like them, Partick are fighting for their lives. They’ll be coming to win, it’s not as if there’s only one or two games left, there’s plenty to play for at the top and bottom of the table.
“So they’ll be tough, these players know it’s their livelihoods they are possibly playing for.”
Although Hamilton and the Staggies will come hard on the heels of tomorrow’s match, McGregor insisted the arrival of Partick is the entire focus of Lennon’s squad, Thistle having proved something of an enigma this season having achieved a first-ever top six finish last time round.
The 32-year-old said: “It’s up to myself and others to make sure everyone is focused on the game because Partick are a decent team as they have proved in years gone by.
“Alan Archibald has done well with them but this year they seem to have hit the skids a wee bit. But they are still dangerous, they are in a very precarious position at the moment, they need points just as desperately as we need points. We are looking up, we have ambitions to finish in the top three, so the points are as important to us as them.
“You want to get as many points as you can before the split because afterwards it becomes very difficult, every game becomes a virtual six-pointer.”
Having embarked on a run of six matches unbeaten in the league, including wins over Rangers, Aberdeen and Hearts, Hibs have tightened their grip on fourth spot which has naturally sent morale soaring but, revealed McGregor, the feelgood factor extends well beyond the club’s first team.
He said: “Winning games, playing well and being in a good position in the league breeds confidence, so we are going into every game thinking we can win and are able to win.
“It’s a great time to be here, but not just in the first team. The under-20s are top of the SPFL Development League and in the semi-finals of the SFA Youth Cup, while the under-18s have also been doing well, so in all aspects things seem to be going great.
“I’d be lying if I said I attend every game, but I check the under-20s all the time. You have to pay attention because a lot of these guys train with us and know the standards we set which will bring them on.
“It’s every youngster’s aspiration at a club like this to play in the first team, that’s their target and doing well will only give them confidence which, in the long run, will benefit the first team.”
This season has already seen the likes of Ryan Porteous, Oli Shaw and Fraser Murray get a taste of top-flight action, while others such as Ben Stirling and Sean Mackie have been part of Lennon’s squad on matchday, and with Scotland midfielder John McGinn suspended not only for tomorrow’s match but Tuesday’s clash with Accies, and Dylan McGeouch battling to overcome a groin problem, McGregor is aware the door could open for one or two of the youngsters.
He said: “It would be silly to think we won’t miss John, you see him away on international duty during the week and doing so well. But John would be the first to admit he doesn’t define the team. He’s a massive cog in the wheel, no doubt about it, but we do have options.
“You only need to look to Marvin Bartley, Danny Swanson and young Fraser in that area. Steven Whittaker could also move into midfield as he has done before or we might bring in an extra defender so the manager does have different choices he could make.
“With every door that closes another one opens and guys who have perhaps been on the periphery or on the bench will see it as a chance to get in there, to hopefully play well and stay there to the end of the season. We’ll miss John but it’s up to us to fill the gaps and play well.”
Hibs will also be missing goalkeeper Ofir Marciano, the Israeli internationalist suspended after being sent off early in the 1-1 draw with St Johnstone a fortnight ago.
Cammy Bell stepped from the bench to make his first appearance for the club and, having played alongside him for a season with Rangers, McGregor insisted he’ll relish his first match before another big crowd at Easter Road.
He said: “I know Cammy well which is very positive. He’s an easy guy to get on with, but we saw at St Johnstone what a class goalkeeper he is. There’s nothing harder for a goalkeeper to have to come on in that situation and in those conditions but he proved he’s more than capable. He knows what to expect and he’s experienced enough to be deal with it.”
Incredibly, tomorrow will be only Hibs’ second league game at home with a 3pm kick-off on a Saturday this calendar year and McGregor knows the supporters will be looking for the free-flowing football Hibs have been producing, but insisted: “It’s three points first and foremost – if we get a performance as well then we’ll be even happier.”