Chris Humphrey has insisted tomorrow’s Championship clash with Ayr United is “ten times more important” than next weekend’s Scottish Cup clash with arch-rivals Hearts – for the moment.
Although the Tynecastle showdown is still eight days away, derby day fever has already gripped the Hibs support, some queuing overnight for tickets with the club’s 3300 allocation selling out within half an hour.
But, while he fully understands the excitement among the fans as Hibs continue their bid to hold on to a trophy it took them 114 years to win, Humphrey was adamant he and his team-mates can’t afford to get wrapped up in the inevitable hype such a match generates.
There will be plenty of time for that next week but, stressed the 29-year-old, the full focus of Neil Lennon’s players is building on the lead of eight points they enjoy at the top of the table, the reward for an outstanding January boosted by Neil Lennon named as Championship manager of the month.
It all kicked off with a pivotal clash against their main title rivals Dundee United, former Motherwell winger Humphrey enjoying a dream debut as he played a major role in a 3-0 victory and a performance described by Lennon as the best he’d seen since he arrived in Edinburgh last summer.
Narrow wins over Dumbarton and Queen of the South followed plus, of course, that 8-1 demolition of East Super League champions Bonnyrigg Rose in the last round of the cup in which Humphrey claimed his first goal for his new club.
And, with United’s home match against Raith Rovers tomorrow kicking off after Hibs’ game with Ayr has finished, the Jamaican internationalist sees the visit of Ian McCall’s side as an opportunity to further turn up the heat on the Tannadice players.
He said: “The game against United at the beginning of last month was important, but so was the next one and the one after that. We play before them tomorrow and, if we can win again, that puts massive pressure on them.
“And that’s the difference. The only pressure we are under is the pressure we put on ourselves to win – they’ve got the pressure of knowing they are chasing us.”
Surprisingly, tomorrow’s match will only be Hibs’ second at Easter Road since the start of the year and it will be the only one in front of their own fans until Dunfermline visit at the end of the month, the cup tie followed by yet another away game against Raith.
“It’ll be great to be back at home with the crowd behind us but it doesn’t matter where you play when you are at Hibs, the pressure is on to get the points.
“It’s good to have gone away and won against Dumbarton and Queen of the South, two teams who had been doing well. Even though it was only 1-0 in each of these games we picked up the three points in both of them.
“I’m sure the gaffer would like us to go out here, play great football and turn teams over by five or six goals. But that doesn’t happen. Teams are going to make it very difficult for us and whether we win by five or six or 1-0, a win is a win, three more points to keep us going towards where we want to be.
“That’s our mindset. We don’t really care about what anyone else is doing – we concentrate on what we do best.”
Humphrey arrived as Lennon’s first signing of the winter transfer window but, by the time it shut on Tuesday night, he was joined only by goalkeeper Scott Gallacher, signed as back-up to Israeli internationalist Ofir Marciano and Ross Laidlaw following the departure of Otso Virtanen and the dislocated thumb suffered by Polish youngster Majiec Dabrowski.
Humphrey, however, insisted he wasn’t surprised at the lack of activity, although Lennon did admit strenuous efforts to bring striker Anthony Stokes back to Easter Road for a third time on loan from Blackburn Rovers had failed.
He said: “We’ve got good lads here. You look around and I don’t think we really needed to get someone in. I’m sure the club would have done so if needed, but there was no need to just go out and panic buy.
“We’ve got such a great bunch of boys the gaffer can change the team as he wishes. I was on the bench at Palmerston Park and I looked to my left and then my right and all I could see was very good players – and very good players already out on the pitch.
“When you see that, it doesn’t surprise you that no-one else has come in. Whoever the gaffer picks to play on the day can do a great job and that will take us a long way.
“To be honest, before I came back up here [after being released by Preston North End] I had a look at the squad and saw how good it was. I’d only played with Grant Holt at Shrewsbury a few years ago but I’d played against half of the lads when I was with Motherwell.
“The boys have been brilliant. After training with them for three days it was like I’d known them for five or six years. Training with them really opens up your eyes to the quality we have.”
Ayr hold the distinction of being the only team to have beaten Hibs at Easter Road in the league this season but, insisted Humphrey, that hasn’t been mentioned this week although he admitted he wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t raised during today’s intense briefing from Lennon.
He said: “We’ve worked hard on the training ground this week and the gaffer prepares very well so I’d expect him to talk about them today. But, as always, it’s about what we do and doing it very well. It’s a case of remaining level-headed and taking each game as it comes.”
Lennon has warned, however, that if anyone fails to produce against Ayr they run the risk of losing their jersey for the derby, a fact of which his players are well aware.
Humphrey said: “We have such a strong squad that the gaffer can change things as he sees fit. As I said, we take each game as it comes and that means tomorrow is ten times more important than Hearts at this moment in time.
“We want to win, add three more points and then we can look to next weekend. Derbies are the best thing about football but, while the fans are buzzing about it, we haven’t had a chance to start getting excited.
“They can look forward to it and let the excitement build for days but, as a player, you have to control that. We’ll look to take care of business tomorrow and, if we can do that then I am sure that will make it even more exciting for next week.”