Neil Lennon insists Hibs are fully focused on making a big impact in the knockout competitions this season as they prepare to host free-scoring Ayr United in the second round of the Betfred Cup this evening.
The Easter Road side exited the tournament at home to Queen of the South at this stage last season, but the impact of that 3-1 defeat was softened by the notion that they had bigger fisher to fry, with all the emphasis of last term on ensuring promotion from Championship was achieved.
Now that Hibs are safely back in the Premiership, Lennon admits that progressing to the latter stages of both the Betfred Cup and the Scottish Cup are high on his agenda.
“Realistically, we are playing for two trophies rather than three because Celtic are going to take some stopping again this year, so this is an opportunity to try and get some silverware in the door again,” said the manager.
“Last year I think all the focus was on the league and then the cup games were a nice distraction, when they could pit their wits against Premier League opposition. The shoe is on the other foot now. We are the Premier League opposition and Ayr will come with nothing to lose.
“I think we have done well in the cups over the last couple of seasons. Under Stubbsy [Alan Stubbs] we got to two finals, and we reached a semi-final last year. Our cup record of recent years has been decent. They got a smell of it and a taste for it and they quite like it. Last season the feelgood factor, and the psychological lift winning the Scottish Cup had given the club was massive. It’s still carrying on into this season.”
Lennon will freshen his team up tonight, with Anthony Stokes in line for his first start since returning to Hibs for a third spell and Darren McGregor and David Gray also in contention after missing the Premiership win over Partick Thistle on Saturday through suspension. Teenage midfielder Fraser Murray could also be given a start, although Lennon is adamant that the team selected to face an Ayr side who have scored 16 goals in their last three matches will not be influenced by the fact Hibs face a huge match away to Rangers on Saturday.
“I will make changes but not wholesale,” he said. “I am not even thinking about Rangers on Saturday, that will take care of itself when it comes around. I was there [at Fir Park] to have a look at the [Motherwell v Rangers] game but we can talk about that later in the week. The focus now is on negotiating this tie as best we can.
“I hope there is a good focus for this game and I’m sure there will be because the players have played very well so far, even in the group games against lesser opposition, they’ve handled that really well.
“Stokesy definitely comes into contention. McGregor and Gray are back from suspension and will come into contention, as will young Fraser Murray. I’ve got good options to think about. But I’ll put out a very strong team. We respect the competition and, more importantly, the opponent.”
Reflecting on last term’s Betfred Cup defeat by Queens, almost a year ago to the day, Lennon said: “It was early. We were all still finding our feet. But it was a game where we were totally dominant for 70 minutes and should have been out of sight. Queen of the South equalised and we had a goalkeeper mistake thrown in there as well – we didn’t deserve to lose the tie but we did. We just have to make sure we are on top tomorrow and when we are on top, or if we are, we put our chances away.”