Vykintas Slivka is well positioned to finish his first season in Scotland with a flourish.
After a two-and-a-half-month lay-off enforced by a hamstring problem, the Hibs midfielder marked his return to action by stepping off the bench and scoring what proved to be the winner against Celtic last weekend as the Glasgow side’s title party was put on hold. It was just the tonic the Lithuania internationalist needed after a demoralising period on the sidelines which was sparked by an injury first sustained in the previous meeting with the champions-elect back in January.
“Basically I had a problem with my hamstring which was quite complicated,” said Slivka, explaining the nature of the injury that stopped him in his tracks. “It was not too serious but it was a difficult one to heal. It happened at Celtic Park and then I played against Motherwell after that but I couldn’t continue. I didn’t think it would keep me out quite so long. At the beginning, I was told one or two weeks but it was a lot longer. It was frustrating. I was just looking forward to getting back out on the field, so it was nice to be back after two and a half months out and get a goal in such an important game. Celtic are a big club and they could have become champions on Saturday so it was nice to ruin the party and make sure nobody was going to celebrate at our place. I had messages from all my relatives and friends in Lithuania, which was nice.”
Slivka’s appearance last weekend was his 25th in a Hibs shirt this season, although only 11 have been as a starter. A combination of stiff midfield competition and an untimely mid-season injury have prevented the 22-year-old establishing himself as a mainstay of Neil Lennon’s high-flying team, but the former Juventus youngster has been relatively happy with the way his maiden season with Hibs has unfolded.
“I’m happy here – I enjoy wearing these colours and playing with these guys,” said Slivka. “We are having a good season in our first year after being in the Championship. I feel calm. I’ve had to adapt to the style of play and the weather but I think I am doing quite well. Scottish football is more physical and the tempo is a bit higher than what I was used to but it suits me. I think I will be even better next season after the experience of this season. I will be hoping for a strong season next year.”
Slivka is also enjoying life in Edinburgh despite seeing his friend and fellow Lithuanian Deivydas Matulevicius depart around the same time he sustained his injury. “It’s very nice here,” he said. “There are loads of things to do away from football, like gigs and things like that, and the people are very open in Edinburgh. I have some friends here and sometimes I hang around with my team-mates. I wanted Deivydas to stay but things happened as they happened.”
With Marvin Bartley, Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch, John McGinn, Brandon Barker and Danny Swanson among those vying for midfield positions, there is no guarantee that Slivka’s goal against Celtic will be enough to earn him a return to the starting line-up for tomorrow’s match against Kilmarnock.
Although it has played a part in limiting his game time, Slivka is happy with the strength in depth at Easter Road.
“It’s a very strong squad,” he said. “There is a lot of competition but that is good for the team. Sometimes it can be frustrating for individual players but it can help the team get better results. Competition is good, I like that. I think we have, if not the best, one of the best midfields in the league.”
Slivka has been utilised in a variety of positions across midfield since arriving at Hibs. The Lithuanian feels he is at his best as a box-to-box player.
“I feel best as a No.8, getting up and down,” he said. “That’s my favourite position, but I can play other positions as well.”
Hibs have the chance to secure a first top-four finish since 2010 if they defeat Kilmarnock at Easter Road tomorrow. If they achieve this feat, they will then be well placed to mount a challenge for second place, with Aberdeen and Rangers currently only three points ahead of them.
Slivka is optimistic about the remainder of the season will play out for Hibs. “We have a really good squad and we are capable of winning all of these games but we just have to take it game by game,” he said. “Right now Kilmarnock is the most important game for us.”
The presence of Lennon, a serial winner in Scottish football, is widely deemed a factor which may give Hibs a crucial edge over their rivals in the remaining four matches. Slivka says the players are rising to the high demands of their manager. “The gaffer is quite particular,” he explained. “I learn things from him. He’s a strong character who loves to win and hates to lose, which is what pushes you forward to perform well. He’s very honest. If you play badly, he’ll tell you and if you play well, he’ll praise you, and I think that’s the right way to be.”