Ah, the innocence of youth. Now 11 points adrift of Rangers with only ten games remaining and yet Hibs midfielder Liam Henderson refuses to throw in the towel, adamant the Championship title race isn’t yet over.
But, while you have to admire the 19-year-old’s unswerving optimism, deep down everyone within Easter Road knows the Capital club’s promotion hopes lie not in taking that one guaranteed place but via the lottery of the play-offs.
Back-to-back defeats by Morton and now Dumbarton in the space of four days have shattered the hope that Hibs can overhaul the Ibrox club, almost erasing the thought that only a fortnight previously doing so looked perfectly feasible.
Back then, the gap between the two sides was eight points but Alan Stubbs’ players had it in their own hands to trim it to just three with Rangers still to come to Easter Road. But a draw at Livingston only a couple of hours after their rivals had faltered at basement outfit Alloa and now just three points from their three subsequent games have wrecked that particular dream.
Not, however, as far as on-loan Celtic kid Henderson is concerned. “If we think it is beyond us, why bother playing the rest of the games?” he reasoned.
“There would be no point if you think the title has gone. It’s definitely not over. We are a confident dressing-room, we have a lot of extremely talented players and we believe we can keep winning games.”
They won’t, though, if they continue to allow opposition teams to score as easily as Morton and Dumbarton have done, head coach Stubbs admitting they’d conceded two poor goals against the Greenock club and pointing to costly individual errors proving fatal this time round.
For the second match in succession, Hibs found themselves three down, Kevin Cawley turning into acres of space to fire a low shot beyond goalkeeper Mark Oxley, who then came for a Mark Docherty cross only for Christian Nade to beat him to the ball and nod it into the far corner before another former Hearts player, Darren Barr, stooped to head home Calum Waters’ corner.
All that within 49 minutes, but credit to Stubbs’ players, they didn’t meekly accept defeat, Henderson, who had clipped the bar with a volley in the opening minutes of the game, throwing them a lifeline as he curled a shot beyond Jamie Ewings before Farid El Alagui stepped from the bench to narrow the margin even further.
However, Hibs, as Stubbs agreed, had left themselves with just too much to do, an equaliser constantly eluding them as they pinned Dumbarton down inside their own penalty area, the disappointment of defeat compounded as news filtered through of Harry Forrester’s late winner for Rangers against St Mirren.
“I can’t fault the players’ efforts,” insisted Stubbs. “But we cannot be giving teams three goals and expecting to come back from that. We’ve made individual errors and were punished.
“After that, we showed a lot of character but to claw back three goals is a big ask from anyone. We have to get back to basics and cut out the silly mistakes.”
Like Henderson, Stubbs refused to to give up entirely on chasing down the title but was more realistic about the challenge facing his side as he said: “It’s going to be very difficult now to go up automatically as champions.
“Nothing has changed too much, though, because our objective is to go up, whether as No.1 or through the play-offs. We’ve had a couple of disappointing results that have made it very, very difficult but I will never give up anything until it is mathematically impossible for us to go up as champions. But we are making it a lot more difficult right now.”
If the sight of Rangers disappearing somewhere over the horizon isn’t bad enough, Hibs now have Falkirk looming large in the rearview mirror, the third-placed Bairns having cut the gap to just two points and boss Peter Houston adamant his side can overtake the Capital club in the coming weeks.
Stubbs, however, insisted his eyes are firmly fixed looking forward and not back over his shoulder, a view shared by Henderson, who was adamant a punishing schedule of matches – this was Hibs’ seventh of the month as they fight on three fronts – wasn’t taking its toll on him and his team-mates.
He said: “From day one, our target has been promotion. We’ve done well in the cups, but that’s an added bonus. The games are coming thick and fast and we have a lot of big ones coming up. But that’s what happens when you are challenging in every competition. We would not want it any other way, you want to play in every competition.”
Henderson did admit, though, that losing successive matches having suffered only one defeat in their previous 28 games had come as “a bit of a shock to the system” but insisted Stubbs’ players will emerge all the stronger for the experience.
Reflecting that had his early shot gone in the game might have panned out entirely differently, he said: “We are a young dressing-room and we’ve never experienced something like this before.
“It’s a good learning curve. Playing so many games hasn’t taken its toll on us. We are playing well but unfortunately these things happen in football. That’s why people love the game so much – there are always upsets. It’s been a bit of a shock, but that’s football, you have to expect the unexpected. We’ll just keep working hard. We know we are good enough a team to turn it around and get back on track.”
Given Hibs face ten more league matches – tomorrow night’s trip to Queen of the South – followed by the Scottish Cup quarter-final visit from Inverness Caley and then the League Cup final against Ross County – Stubbs will be anxious to avoid slipping into third place, a situation which would bring two more unwanted games into the equation.
Henderson acknowledged the need to avoid that scenario, saying: “If we cannot win then second place is the priority because we know how tough the play-offs can be.”