Even allowing for a difficult summer in which they lost a high-calibre midfield unit, eighth place in the Premiership was not where Hibs planned to be a third of a way into the season.
The bunched-up nature of the league means that, remarkably, they are only eight points behind joint leaders Celtic and Hearts. But the fact they sit six points adrift of the top four, and currently trail the likes of Kilmarnock, Livingston and St Johnstone in the standings, is causing mild concern down Easter Road way.
It was only a month ago that Hibs sat in second place with the best goal difference in the league after a four-game winning streak, which shows there remains a capable squad of players at Neil Lennon’s disposal. But right now, things are just not happening for them, as evidenced by a run of just one point from the past four games. In addition, and uncharacteristacally, there have been no goals in the last three matches – a 0-0 draw away to Hearts and back-to-back 1-0 defeats by St Johnstone at Easter Road and Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
“The gaffer’s asking us what’s not quite clicking at the moment, and I’m not sure what it is,” defender Darren McGregor told the Evening News. “We were quite flat in the first half at Pittodrie on Friday, which can happen subconsciously or it may have been down to the conditions. But that’s two games on the bounce we’ve been pretty flat so we really need to address it. The buck stops with us. We’re letting the manager down at the moment as well as the fans who are coming to see us.
“The last three games we’ve played could all potentially have ended in draws. The Hearts game was a draw, the St Johnstone game we felt hard done by to lose the late goal and then against Aberdeen, they had one opportunity and scored from it and we created quite a number of chances and should have scored at least one, so it’s very disappointing.”
While the league standings don’t make for pleasant reading, Hibs can find some solace in the fact their recent downturn has come amid a testing run of fixtures against four sides currently riding high in the table at a time when they have been unable to field a settled team due to a spate of niggling fitness issues.
Nonetheless, McGregor, one of those who has missed a segment of the campaign through injuries, feels his team must simply find a way of grinding through their adversity if they are serious about repeating last season’s top-four finish and getting another crack at European football.
Victory against bottom-of-the-table Dundee a week on Saturday is deemed imperative as Hibs embark on a run of nine games in 35 days following the international break. They could be boosted for that Easter Road encounter by the return of some of their injured players, including David Gray, Paul Hanlon, Emerson Hyndman and Thomas Agyepong.
“It’s really frustrating to be in the bottom six,” said McGregor. “Games away to Celtic, Hearts and Aberdeen are always going to be difficult but, if we want to be mounting a challenge for the top four, like we did last year, we need to be going to these places, playing well and getting points. It took us 45 minutes to find our bearings on Friday and against a team like Aberdeen you can’t do that. It’s been disappointing but we need to look forward. We’ll look to get some good work in over the international break and then prepare for Dundee because that’s a big game for us. All our focus is on that now. No disrespect to Dundee but we’re at home so we’ve got to be looking to win that game. One win can spark a few wins so it’s paramount that we get a win in that one.
“The league table is still pretty tight and there’s definitely enough about this team to put things right.
“Look at the players we’ve got and the players we’ll have coming back from injury after the break. They’ll only strengthen us. We had four wins in a row before we hit this bad run so hopefully we can string a few wins together, get the confidence back and then start mounting a challenge for the top four again.”
While McGregor expects his team to get back on track, he also anticipates a strong response from defensive sidekick Ryan Porteous after the 19-year-old gifted the ball to Gary Mackay-Steven before the winger blasted in Aberdeen’s match-winning goal.
“Ryan will bounce back, of course he will,” said McGregor. “To be fair to him, nobody could have expected Mackay-Steven to hit it so well at the pace he was going at. He just took a touch and smashed it towards goal. It’s one of those things that happens in football. When it does happen, you need somebody else to stand up and be a hero but it just didn’t quite happen for us on Friday.”
McGregor has started three of Hibs’ past four games since recovering from a knee injury, sustained away to Asteras Tripolis in early August. The 33-year-old has been encouraged by his own form so far and expects to get back to his best as he gets more game time under his belt.
“It’s difficult because I was out for a good few months but I think I’ve acquitted myself quite well,” he said.
“I’m totally over the injury but it takes you a wee while to get back into the flow of things and get your bearings again. It’s also a hard team to break back into because we’re spoilt for choice in defence.
“We’ve got Paul coming back soon and that will strengthen us even more.”