Darren McGregor is relishing the intensity of a formidable five-game finale which will define Hibs’ season.
The Easter Road side sit fourth in the Premiership knowing that they could, realistically, finish the campaign anywhere between second and fifth.
Although the consensus is that Neil Lennon’s team have already had a fine first season back in the top flight regardless of where they end up, it would go down as one of Hibs’ best seasons of the modern era if they can elevate themselves into second place over the course of the next month.
With fixtures against the three teams above them, plus a visit from rampant Kilmarnock and a derby at Tynecastle, achieving this feat won’t be straightforward, especially given that Aberdeen and Rangers hold a three-point advantage.
McGregor is encouraged, however, by the fact three of Hibs’ last five games are at Easter Road, and the defender simply can’t wait to get stuck into this burst of high-stakes, cut-throat football. “Second place is definitely attainable,” McGregor said. “It’s all very well me sitting and saying that’s the target and we’re definitely going to do it, but we need to go and perform. The next five games will probably be the five hardest we’ve had all season but when you’re competing for an accolade, that’s when you measure your worth.
“Every game’s going to have something riding on it, which is why the powers-that-be changed it years ago. It’s more exciting because it’s so tight. With three or four teams going for second spot, it’s going to be intense, but that’s why we play football, to play in sold-out arenas, where the games are competitive and there’s something at stake.
“We knew playing in the top six that every game was going to be difficult, but I think most Hibs supporters will be relatively happy with the fixtures. They’ll all be difficult because the other teams have all done well and thoroughly deserve to be in the top six. It’s now going to be a test of everyone’s mettle to see who finishes best of the rest behind Celtic.
“We know it’s going to be difficult but we’re still in with a fighting chance. We’re going into the home straight and we can see the finish line, so we just need to win as many games as we can.
“The fact Aberdeen and Rangers are three points ahead of us is an advantage to them but we’re still in with a right good chance. If you’d given us this opportunity at the start of the season – to be three points off second with five games to go – I’m sure most people would have taken it.
“We just need to make the most of the situation now. We’ve probably overachieved in a lot of people’s eyes but our aim at the start of the season was to get into the top four. We’re now at that stage so there’s no reason why we can’t go for second place. Aberdeen and Rangers and even Kilmarnock will be saying the same but our record against the top six is favourable, so hopefully we can keep the continuity and the consistency going. It’s a case of full steam ahead and we’ll see what happens.”
Hibs enter the business end of the season on the back of an uplifting nine-game unbeaten run, while Aberdeen and Rangers are both undergoing post-mortems after chastening Scottish Cup semi-final defeats at the weekend.
McGregor doesn’t anticipate either of their rivals entering freefall, however.
“It could help that Rangers and Aberdeen have had some bad results recently because they might take a wee dunt to their confidence but it could just as easily go the other way,” he said, mindful of the fact Hibs bounced back strongly from their own Scottish Cup defeat by Hearts in January.
“Knowing the character of the players in those teams, there’s a good chance it will inspire them to put everything into trying to finish the league campaign as strongly as they can.”
Hibs’ next fixture is against Celtic at Easter Road, where Brendan Rodgers’ team can secure the title with a victory. Although the visitors will be favourites, McGregor is upbeat about his own team’s prospects.
“You don’t want any team to win the league on your patch,” he said.
“Brendan Rodgers has got them playing very good football and they’re very hard to beat but in the previous fixtures against them this season, although we’ve not beaten them, we’ve done relatively well. We’ve drawn twice with them and we lost narrowly at Celtic Park, so it should be a competitive game.
“We know if Celtic turn up on top form they’ll be difficult to beat, but you play football for big games like this. Everybody’s looking forward to it. We have to go into it believing we can win, and I certainly think we can. It will be difficult because they’re the best team in Scotland and they’ve proven that over the years but it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to it.”
Despite an injury lay-off earlier in the campaign, McGregor has relished being part of a Hibs team who appear to be heading for their first top-four finish in eight years.
“I had three months out but overall it’s been relatively successful for me,” said the 32-year-old. “In the games I’ve played, I feel I’ve performed well. I still feel I’m contributing and I’m just enjoying playing in a team with such great football players. I think Hibs fans in years to come will appreciate how good some of the players that might potentially move on have been for us. We just need to enjoy it.”