Paul Heckingbottom knows Hibs must be braced for a test of their resilience tomorrow evening.
A trip to Livingston these days brings two clear challenges. The first is the much-maligned plastic pitch. And the second is the wholehearted, physical approach for which the Lions have become renowned under Gary Holt this season.
Heckingbottom has never previously managed a team in a competitive match on an artificial surface. He admits he is not a fan, but acknowledges his team must simply adapt to the situation and get on with the task of trying to extend their unbeaten run in the Premiership to six matches.
“We have plastic pitches all over now, most clubs have got them at their training facilities, so everyone has played on them now,” said the Hibs head coach. “It does affect things. I don’t like them, but it doesn’t matter. We all have them at our training facilities, we have all played on them, we can practise on them as much as we like. But we’re a team who plays the majority of our games on grass, so what’s what we’re used to.
“The teams who play their majority of games on plastic pitches get the benefit of that. It’s just as it is. There are arguments for and against any sort of home advantage in terms of fans, stadiums, changing facilities, plastic pitches, it’s just what you have to deal with.”
Three of Scotland’s 12 Premiership clubs currently play on plastic pitches, but Heckingbottom insists he would never endorse their implementation. “I wouldn’t have it,” he said. “I think there is too much variation in the calibre, the standard, the time they were laid, that’s the problem with it for me.
“I remember playing at Kilmarnock for a pre-season game (when in charge of Barnsley) and that was flat already, and it is still the same pitch. And you’ve got Livingston, which is brand new and plays in a totally different way – it does make for a different game. But so does puddles on the pitch, so does a boggy pitch, so does a rock-hard pitch. We’re playing on different surfaces all the time.”
Despite having been in Scotland for less than two months, Heckingbottom has a good idea of what to expect from Livingston tomorrow.
During his playing days, the Hibs head coach was a team-mate of Lions boss Holt at Norwich City during the 2002-03 season. The pair struck up a rapport and have remained in contact to this day. Livingston’s playing style has regularly unsettled more illustrious opponents this season and, given his knowledge of what Holt was like as a player, Heckingbottom isn’t surprised to find that a team managed by his old team-mate has made a habit of ruffling feathers.
“When I came up (to Hibs) he sent me a message saying: ‘Now you’re going to experience some real fitba’! I was wondering what he was on about so we’ll wait and see. He’s a cheeky so and so.
“We lived round the corner from each other when we were at Norwich and the one thing we did have down there was a good team spirit. We have kept in touch, whether it has been phone calls, bumping into each other at games, text messages between jobs or when we are starting new jobs, so I have always been aware of what he has been doing.
“Gary says he maximised his talent and when that’s the case, the one quality you have then is hard work. Maybe a bit of pragmatism and a knowledge of what it takes to get the best out of himself and now his players.
“That was why he was an effective footballer and I see those qualities in his team. I see that heavily in his teams.”
It remains to be seen if Ryan Gauld will play any part in West Lothian tomorrow evening. The on-loan Sporting Lisbon midfielder is now injury-free after almost two months out with a hamstring injury but his lack of match sharpness, allied to the team’s good form in his absence, means the 23-year-old is likely to have to be content with a place on the bench after playing an hour of Monday’s reserve match against Ross County.
“He has worked really hard on his rehab,” said Heckingbottom. “He only had two days training before the game so we were only ever going to play him for 45 minutes to an hour, but he has trained again today and he has felt the benefit of it. We’ll keep pushing him and progressing until he gets to a really good level.”
Gauld signed for Hibs just before Neil Lennon’s departure in January and is yet to play under Heckingbottom. The head coach explained that he has been busy learning about the former Dundee United midfielder in his absence.
“I’ve seen him in all his games, I watched all the games back before I came in and we had a chat when he was injured so he knows where we see him fitting in and what is expected of him within the team and he has been working on that already.
“So, yeah, we’re looking forward to having him back involved and up to speed so he can make a positive impact on the pitch.
“I wasn’t aware of him before but what I have noticed since I have been here is whenever I have been at a development game or out in town I have been asked: ‘How’s Ryan? When will he be back fit? Lots of people have been asking about him so that backs up what’s been said, he is a player who everybody wants to know about because of his move (to Portugal) and the interest in it.”