JAMES McPAKE has found the past few months tough going. As a proud defender, he enjoyed the first half of the campaign when Hibs were one of the most resilient teams in the SPL and racking up clean sheets for fun.
In mid-February, however, that solidity inexplicably disappeared as the Easter Road outfit embarked on a run which saw them concede at least two goals in seven out of eight games, with their only steady defensive performance in that period coming in the goalless Edinburgh derby against Hearts at Easter Road last month.
Even the Scottish Cup victories over Kilmarnock and Falkirk were tarnished for the captain by the concession of two and three goals respectively.
Now he’s hoping the assured clean sheet against Aberdeen on Monday night sparks a return to more resolute ways as Hibs bid to finish their SPL campaign with a flourish ahead of next month’s eagerly- awaited Scottish Cup final against Celtic.
As he prepared for tomorrow’s Easter Road clash with St Mirren, McPake said: “We’ve been relatively sound and strong all season, but it’s been frustrating recently that we’ve been conceding so many goals. The most frustrating thing is that when we concede we’ve not just been conceding one goal a game, we’ve been conceding twos, threes and even fours. We’ve lost a lot of goals we shouldn’t be conceding. We always watch them back on the video when we’re analysing things and we usually seem to be in a good position to defend them, so it’s really disappointing that we’ve been losing so many.
“It’s down to the full team, though; you can’t just blame every goal on the defence.
As a defender, it’s particularly disappointing because clean sheets are your bread and butter. Even when you’re winning, like we did at Hampden, you’re not wanting to be conceding three goals. We’ve been working on that daily, though, and hopefully that’s us back on track. We were strong at the back against Aberdeen. Wee Lewis [Stevenson] came in and did well at left-back and Paul [Hanlon] and Tim [Clancy] are getting the matches that they need [to get fit]. We looked solid.”
Although Hibs didn’t set the heather alight on Monday, eyebrows were raised when John Brown, the Dundee manager, branded the display “woeful” and suggested that Hibs weren’t fussed about their league form ahead of the cup final.
The Dens Park boss was clearly trying to generate a reaction from the Hibs players as his relegation-threatened side need Pat Fenlon’s men to avoid defeat against second-bottom St Mirren tomorrow in order to help prolong their unlikely survival bid. McPake, however, is taking Brown’s comments with a pinch of salt, although he did move to reassure any doubters that Hibs are still fully focused on the remainder of their league campaign. “There’s nothing really to say about what [Brown’s] had to say,” said McPake. “We’ll just brush it off and take it with a pinch of salt. It’s nothing that’s going to bother us. It certainly doesn’t bother me what he’s got to say.
“Maybe a lot of people don’t look at it that way, but in-house, we still feel we’ve got a lot to play for. We’re well aware that we’re playing for cup final places and to try and finish seventh.”
McPake is desperate to end the season at the top of the bottom six, but he is adamant that, regardless of how good or bad their league form is in the remaining four games, it will have no bearing on what happens at Hampden on May 26.
“If we could finish seventh it would mean we’d be going into the cup final with a bit of momentum, but, having said that, regardless of what happens in the next few weeks, we’ll still be confident going into the final.
“I know people say you need to build momentum, and obviously we’d like to do that, but look at Celtic, they’ve got players away on holiday just now. We’re building towards the cup final, so it’s always in the back of your mind, but league games are our bread and butter and the big incentive is that we all want to guarantee our place in the cup final team and get a big day at the end of May.”
The presence of Hearts alongside Hibs in the bottom six has helped add a bit of spice, with some of Gary Locke’s players openly stating that their short-term target is to overhaul their city rivals in the table. McPake, although relishing the derby a fortnight on Sunday, isn’t placing any great emphasis on finishing ahead of Hearts specifically. “Probably the only consolation from being in the bottom six is that there’s another derby,” he admitted. “They’re great games for both clubs; great games for the fans and the players.
“I’m not overly fussed about finishing ahead of Hearts, though. We just want to do as well as we can and look after ourselves. It was never the aim to finish ahead of Hearts, our aim was to make the top six. If Hearts had finished second and we finished third, we’d have been delighted with that because we set out to finish in the top six. We’ve not managed that, but we can’t dwell on it; we’ve just got to come out and make sure we win that mini-league and if we do that we’ll have finished ahead of every team in the bottom six.”
Regardless of what happens over the next month or so, McPake insists Hibs will have made notable progress from their hapless recent campaigns. “The team’s improved, the club’s improved and the way we play has improved,” he said. “We hit a bad patch that we’ve struggled to get out of over the past few months but we’ve still got a good chance to finish seventh, so overall it has been an improvement.
“We’re also in a cup final again and have another chance to go and win the Scottish Cup. There’s been a big improvement since last year.”