Efe Ambrose has revealed he and his Easter Road team-mates thought boss Neil Lennon had lost the plot when he allowed Hibs’ leading two goalscorers to leave halfway through the season, replacing them with players no-one had heard of.
But, admitted the defender, the arrival of Jamie Maclaren and Flo Kamberi as Anthony Stokes and Simon Murray departed has proved to be a masterstroke, one which has kept the Capital club in the fight for second place in the Premiership table.
And, he conceded, he should have known better than to doubt Lennon, saying: “It was a gamble, but it’s paid off. f it hadn’t, everyone would have criticised him for making a bad judgement and mistake, letting Stokesy go and sending Murray to Dundee. But sometimes you need to take risks to get to where you want.
“He took the risk and it’s paid off. It was a surprise to me because nobody thought Stokesy or Murray would leave, they had more than 20 goals and were the top and second top goalscorers.
“Some people might think ‘what is he trying to do?’ The players were also a bit confused when you let them go and bring in two new players who nobody knows and who haven’t played in the league before. It was also strange to us but when they came into the team we could see what they brought so we supported them, we helped them settle down quickly. The gaffer makes sure we fight as a team and that’s something we’ve brought into the second half of the season and helped us believe we can compete with the best in the league.”
While Ambrose and others may have questioned Lennon’s judgment, the Nigerian internationalist insisted he knew better than to challenge him over his decision.
He said: “You have to trust his instincts because he has been here and done it at the top level. You need to support him in what he is trying to do and no-one can question his authority or judgment because you know if you do, you know what will come.”
Like Lennon, Ambrose believes Australian striker Maclaren and Swiss hitman Kamberi, along with the return of midfielder Scott Allan, have been the key to Hibs stringing together eight matches undefeated, a sequence which has kept them hard on the heels of Rangers and Aberdeen in the race to finish “best of the rest” behind Celtic.
But, he admitted, being knocked out of the Scottish Cup by arch-rivals Hearts in the first match following the winter break had been a pivotal moment in Hibs’ season as they were left with no alternative but to put all their energies into finishing as high in the table as possible.
He said: “Coming back up, our first season in the league, our goal was to be in the top six and win a trophy. When we lost to Hearts we knew we could not win a trophy so from then on we have looked at finishing in the top four and winning a European spot would be a great achievement for the club. Being in Europe is like winning a trophy for us, that’s what the gaffer has said to us.”
Hibs are, agreed Ambrose, displaying the sort of consistency which should bring plenty of optimism for the post-split fixtures, Lennon’s players well aware that they boast a pretty decent record against the top six clubs.
He said: “The way we have played has really put other teams on the back foot. Bringing the likes of Jamie, Flo and Scott into the squad really changed our style of play, really brought the best out of us. We lacked those kind of players at the beginning of the season.
“That’s not to say Stokesy and Murray were not good enough, they are good. They scored goals. but the style of football we have played has helped us a lot. You look at Flo and Jamie and then Scotty who has helped [John] McGinn and Dylan [McGeouch]. Those five players bring a different kind of play and have really helped us to settle down over the second half of the season. Last season we created more chances but we didn’t have the finishers. This season we have utilised our chances, we have defended well, we have scored goals and we have played better football as well. We never expected to be in the position we are in, fighting where we are. We have put a lot of hard work and determination into this season and we are seeing the benefit of that now. We thought top six would be good enough for us, at least for our first season back.”
Now, though, the target is second. Ambrose said: “One point behind Rangers and four behind Aberdeen, we are close. We need to let them know we’re coming. Nobody is safe right now – maybe only Celtic. But for the rest, and Kilmarnock are coming really strong too, second is still open and anyone can be in that position.
“But the work we have to do is just starting because we are going to play the best teams in the country although we have done well against the teams in the top six.”