Hibs are relishing clashes with big three, says Lewis Stevenson
Not so long ago the thought of facing Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen in quick succession would have sent a chill down the spine of every Hibs supporter.
Today, though, they are simply thrilled at the prospect of next week’s action. Neil Lennon’s players are very much in the mix at the top end of Premiership table with games against their three big rivals in just six days giving them the chance to improve on their current fourth place.
There is, however, no question as to the scale of the task facing them but, insisted Lewis Stevenson, it’s a challenge he and his team-mates are more than ready to meet, pointing to the fact that the Easter Road outfit beat Rangers at Ibrox, took a point from Celtic Park and only lost narrowly to the Dons in a game in which most felt they deserved at least a draw.
The club’s longest serving player said: “We don’t fear any games this season. There have been times in the past you’d have said ‘we’ll take a point’, but we honestly think we can win every game and I think that has shown.
“There have been games when we maybe have not performed as well as we can but we’ve still been in it so we know we are always in with a shout of giving any team a game.”
Stevenson conceded that last time Hibs were in the top flight such a schedule would have been worrying for all involved, the Capital club finding themselves in a bottom-six battle each season before finally suffering the ignominy of relegation and being cast into the Championship for three years even if that historic Scottish Cup triumph eased the pain ever so slightly.
“I think because we have started pretty well, we have that buffer that it’s not life or death but something to build on,” he said. “Playing these three sides one after the other does bring a pressure but it’s one you look forward to, playing in front of three full houses.”
As the Premiership “new boys”, Stevenson admitted Lennon’s players have perhaps lost any surprise element they enjoyed earlier in the season saying: “We’ve given a few teams a bloody nose this season and long may that continue. But teams now know we are a decent standard. However, it’s still early doors, there’s a long way to go and we can’t go getting ahead of ourselves.
“It’s been a good start, maybe we did have that element of surprise having been away for three years but we have played every team at least once so they will be as ready for us as we will be for them.”
And having taken that point at Celtic Park and given a good account of themselves despite losing to Brendan Rodgers’ side in the semi-final of the Betfred Cup, Stevenson reckons the Hoops will be well prepared for Sunday’s trip to Easter Road.
He said: “Celtic will be ready for us because they’ve seen what we’ve got and they won’t be taking us lightly. They are by far the best team in the country. Even in the semi we competed well and were in the game for long spells.”
A Champions League match away to Belgian side Anderlecht for Celtic preceded that earlier league game in the east end of Glasgow, Lennon having claimed at the time it could be a factor and although Rodgers’ players face exactly the same scenario this week, Stevenson insisted it wouldn’t have any impact.
He said: “The Anderlecht game was on Tuesday, not Wednesday this time and our match with Celtic is on Sunday rather than Saturday which means they will be fully recovered. But that’s what we want to do, play a fully fit Celtic and see what we can do.
“At the weekend against Motherwell they had a few fringe players in the team, but then Odsonne Edouard pops up with a hat-trick. I’m sure they’ve got players who didn’t even get on the bench who could probably play in any other Premiership side.”
The significance of the fact Celtic stand on 67 games unbeaten in domestic competition hasn’t been lost on Hibs fans who would love nothing better than to see that incredible run come to an end on that total.
Stevenson said: “It’s a number that means a lot to them, everyone has been hoping they can be the one to end it. As far as we are concerned, it’s not just hope. We think we have ways of hurting them. They are the best team with the best players and we know they will come and have a go which might suit us because we have the players who can hurt them on the break, although we know they will probably dominate the ball and that we’ll have to be patient and defend.”
A win over Partick Thistle, courtesy of an own goal from Adam Barton, the Jags midfielder’s head sending Stevenson’s cross beyond goalkeeper Tomas Cerny, hauled Hibs to within a point of both Rangers and Aberdeen and while conceding it was a stroke of luck as far as Hibs were concerned, he insisted it was long overdue.
Stevenson was mobbed by his team-mates as if he himself had scored, the 29-year-old turning the ball into the danger zone after Anthony Stokes’ free-kick had crashed off Thistle’s defensive wall.
He said: “It was a stuffy game without many chances so we were just happy to make the breakthrough. I didn’t really see it at the time, I didn’t know how it went in. It was a ball into the box, I just whipped it in because our centre halves were still up there and Efe Ambrose had made a run and we got lucky.
“With John McGinn not playing I went over that side so it’s good to have a left footer standing over the ball, you have a more natural angle to put it in from there.
“But even if I was a 30-goal a season man I wasn’t going to get the ball off Stokesy. I have to admit I’d been practising in training and my efforts weren’t that great. We haven’t had a lot of luck this season, so it was nice to finally get a bit. It was a tight game, not the best we have played by any means, but it was good to go away and get a win at the start of what is a massive month for us.
“There are fine margins in football. We’ve had games where draws could easily have been wins and defeats draws. It’s those little things, Ofir Marcian made a couple of good saves on Saturday and that was maybe the difference on the day.
“I try not to look at the table but I know it’s been tight for the last few weeks. The other teams have been playing each other, Aberdeen and Rangers have been dropping points, even Celtic have. So getting a win was great.”