After four successive defeats which had ended Hibs’ Championship title hopes and thrust them into a battle with Falkirk for that all-important second place, Darren McGregor admitted eyebrows could well have been raised at the news he and his team-mates were embarking on a week off.
Many, he agreed, might have expected head coach Alan Stubbs to order his squad in every day and put them through hell rather than take advantage of the hiatus in Hibs’ season offered by having a clutch of players away on international duty.
Stubbs, despite saying his side’s performance as they lost to Raith Rovers last time out was the most disappointing in his time at Easter Road, resisted that temptation, recognising the players were probably physically and mentally exhausted having endured an unrelenting run of matches including the League Cup final and the two clashes with Inverness Caledonian in which they secured their place in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.
Now, with an equally taxing schedule ahead – their final eight Championship matches and that semi-final against Dundee United to be played in the space of just 29 days this month, McGregor reckons Stubbs’ softly, softly approach will pay dividends.
The central defender said: “I think the run of games we’d been on with the cup final and quarter-final in Inverness might have meant we’d taken our eyes off the ball and our main target, the league.
“But we’d have a week to gather our thoughts and I think we are in a clearer position and we know what needs to be done.”
After a remarkable run of matches in which Hibs had lost just once in 28 games, McGregor revealed that, with the benefit of hindsight, he and his team-mates just didn’t have time to recover after suffering a surprise 3-0 defeat at home to Morton.
He said: “I knew coming to Hibs that the hard games would be Morton on a Tuesday night, going away to Dumbarton on a Saturday afternoon. These are the games that win you leagues and get you promoted and we have obviously faltered a bit.
“But I think with all the games condensed into a short period of time once we had one bad result we never managed to recover.
“We had that wee hiccup against Morton and maybe we just didn’t get over it.”
McGregor admitted he could understand the opposite view to that taken by Stubbs, that there should have been no time off and training intensified.
The 30-year-old said: “You could say that, there are guys out there working six day weeks labouring and saying we are only in a couple of hours a day.
“I can understand that argument but I feel the week will definitely have benefited us. You can feel it among the boys. Some got away – I took my family away for a couple of days – and when you aren’t in and around East Mains every day it does give you time to reflect on what went wrong and how can we put it right.
“We have that hunger back – not that we lost it – but I think it gives you more of an appetite to right the wrongs. I know exactly how the fans are feeling, we are also really disappointed but the thing is we can’t allow it to affect us.
“We know our objective – second place – is within our grasp and that’s what we have to go for, promotion is the key for us.”
If McGregor has detected a spring back in the step of Stubbs’ players then both John McGinn and Jason Cummings have been absolutely bouncing, the midfielder named man of the math on his Scotland debut just hours after the striker had ended a seven match goal drought by notching two as Scotland Under-21s defeated Northern Ireland.
He said: “I texted John before the game to wish him all the best but his performance against Denmark just shows his character and attributes. He’s a good young professional and for Gordon Strachan to give him the nod, regardless of it being a friendly, to play the full 90 minutes and be named man of the match was just unbelievable.
“He has a bright future and that will only enhance his confidence and benefit Hibs.”
Cummings was on the receiving end of plenty of flak after his astonishing miss at Stark’s Park, somehow hitting the bar from only a few yards out with the goal gaping but McGregor reckons his double in midweek will have the 20-year-old relishing returning to Paisley tomorrow as Hibs hit the final straight against St Mirren.
He said: “Jason had put together a great run of goals but even the best strikers in the world go through peaks and troughs.
“Jason has still been doing it in training, his finishing was still of the same calibre but I don’t think you could make too much of an issue about him not scoring.
“You could speak to him for an hour about it, but that’s not the right approach. The gaffer still had full faith in him, and so do the rest of us.
“It’s one of those things, you know it will come back and it has. Make too big an issue of it and he could have started doubting himself.
“He’s young and sometimes you get that bit of inconsistency but scoring for Scotland will give him the same confidence and going back to the same ground only a few days later is something he’ll be looking forward to.”
McGregor concedes the pressure is on Hibs to start piling on the points again, going into the final stage of the season trailing Falkirk by six but with three games in hand.
And while many might view tomorrow’s match against his old club, stuck in mid-table with no chance of making the promotion play-offs and unlikely to find themselves confronting any relegation worries, as one which is relatively meaningless to Alex Rae’s side, McGregor firmly disagrees.
He said: “I think as professionals you still want to win every game regardless of what position you are in. It might be more important to us because we are going for second but they’ll be looking to consolidate their position.
“I’m sure they’ll have the same application and they might even be a bit more relaxed.
“But from here on in every league game is going to be massive for us, each one will be significant so it’s about us doing a professional job.”
Liam Henderson returns tomorrow after suspension while Paul Hanlon is back in contention after injury with the hope being that Fraser Fyvie and Dylan McGeouch won’t be too far behind, welcome news as McGregor admitted.
He said: “We have a talented squad but we have been a big depleted in the last few weeks so it will be good to have them back for these final games.”