Two one-time heavyweights of Scottish football who find themselves languishing at the bottom of the SPL pile. Gone are the days of Fergie’s fiefdom and the Famous Five, here for what has seemed like an age is bottom-half mediocrity for both clubs.
The current teams of Aberdeen and Hibs are, in contrast to the standard set by some of their illustrious predecessors, punching well below their weight. But defender David Stephens, part of an Easter Road side who will travel to the north-east for tomorrow’s lunchtime kick-off with the aim of lifting themselves from joint-bottom of the table, sees things differently. For the Wales under-21 internationalist, reputation should not automatically mean expectation – it’s only results that count.
“You’ve got no divine right to be where people think you should be – it’s points that matter,” said Stephens. “We’re not where people think we should be, so it’s our job to get back up there.
“I suppose there is a pressure, but you know that before you sign for a club like Hibs. It’s high standards. You look around the training ground – everything is about high standards, and we look to take that out on to the pitch.”
A renewed confidence appears to have imbued Stephens and his central defensive partner Sean O’Hanlon in recent weeks. With many candidates vying for a place in the heart of the Hibs defence, the pair will look to continue to press their claim to remain as the mainstay centre back pairing against Aberdeen.
“He gets me through the games,” Stephens said of O’Hanlon. “He’s a good talker, and we complement each other well. He is good at reading the game and sometimes I help him out with a bit of cover.
“If we can keep that partnership going and keep it as tight as possible, it can only be good for the team.
“I think we’ve both got defensive attributes that are good – he likes to attack the ball and, if something is in behind, I like to get there first. I’d like to think my pace pays off.”
An immediate and potent threat to the resistance of O’Hanlon and Stephens comes in the form of the prolific Aberdeen striker Scott Vernon, a player with whom Stephens is familiar.
“I played against him at Aberdeen and for Norwich reserves against Southend. Hopefully, we’ll be keeping him quiet. I don’t think he scored against Norwich that time and he didn’t score up at Pittodrie, but he’s a good player so we’ll have to be on our best form.”
Manager Pat Fenlon will decide whether or not Michael Hart is part of the Hibs defence attempting to halt Vernon and his fellow Dons attackers. Stephens would certainly not advocate leaving Hart out, even after the former Aberdeen defender was rendered culpable for the concession of Rangers’ two goals at Easter Road last weekend.
“At Motherwell he played well in the 45 minutes we had. I think he played well last Saturday as well. The penalty was a bit unfortunate, and the corner – that can happen. It happens to all of us. He’s a good professional and I’m sure he’ll bounce back straight away.” Among the last men to face Aberdeen, St Johnstone’s Callum Davidson said after the Dons’ midweek victory in Perth that a sizeable crowd, no matter the prevalent mood among supporters, gives him a mental boost. The paltry attendance of 1600 that witnessed a 2-1 away win at McDiarmid Park provoked the comments by Davidson, who claimed support or stick from the stands are equally welcomed by players – as long as fans turn up in their numbers.
Stephens, however, would rather have happy Hibees on his side than a disgruntled travelling support tomorrow. The Welsh under-21 internationalist says he and his Hibs team-mates consciously attempt to curry favour with their fans as early as possible in each match, but that those looking down from the stands this winter may not necessarily be warmed by the manner in which Stephens and co are prepared to gain three points.
“In a sense, we like the crowd to get behind us,” he admitted. “We like to do things early in the game that will get them on our side. Obviously, there’s an aim – and the aim is to win the game. Sometimes we’ve got to do it dirty, sometimes it’s not always going to be pretty, and the crowd aren’t going to like that.
“The main thing is to try and score goals, but the manager wants us to try and play attractive football, so you have to get that balance. Passing, high tempo, getting after people when you haven’t got it – that’s what we’ve been trying to do at training and take into the games.”
While the poorest away record of any SPL team has proven their downfall to some extent, Aberdeen are in the top half for home results. If this season’s form guide is to act as a barometer, Hibs may fancy their chances of victory even more on the road, given that their miserable sequence of matches at Easter Road since the summer – featuring just one victory – pales in comparison to an ability away from home to gain points in 50 per cent of their games.
Indeed, Hibs can look to their recent record at Pittodrie for further encouragement, the Easter Road side having plucked victory on three of their last five visits to the north-east. Stephens was part of the team when a solitary strike from Akpo Sodje in front of the Richard Donald Stand settled matters at the beginning of April as Hibs targeted a strong finish to last season.
Stephens would rather look for inspiration in that match than the goalless “bore draw” that afflicted Easter Road in September.
“We went there trying to get into the top six and that was one of our last chances,” recalled Stephens of the previous Pittodrie clash. “The odds were stacked against us heavily, but we went there and got a result and a clean sheet, and we’ll try to do that again.
“Every game is cagey, so I don’t think we’ll set out [to do things] any differently. Both teams might be a bit apprehensive on Saturday. Neither team wants to go for it and then be wide open at the back. But, the way we’ve been playing, we’ve got to go for it, start on the front foot, and defend from the front.”