Hibs could still have a very good season - but no margin for error in league and cup run-in
Three huge games. Must-win matches. Three ‘cup finals’. Season-defining. You could go on and on about Hibs’ final two pre-split fixtures and the Scottish Cup semi-final against Hearts next month.
An Edinburgh derby semi-final on the horizon is hard to ignore but if Hibs still harbour hopes of finishing fourth then the remaining games must be their sole focus in the short-term.
The Scottish Premiership, between places four and ten, is incredibly tight.
Dundee United, Hibs’ next opponents, are on 39 points thanks to that late winner from (who else?) former Easter Road striker Marc McNulty; Hibs and Livingston are on 37 points separated only by goal difference; Ross County, Motherwell, and St Mirren are all on 36 points with the Staggies enjoying a greater goal difference than the Steelmen and the Buddies, and Aberdeen are on 35 points but with a better goal difference than any of the teams above them.
The last pre-split matches
The penultimate round of fixtures after the international break could give us a clearer picture going into the final pre-split games, or it might not. As mentioned, Hibs host Dundee United; Livingston travel to St Johnstone; Ross County welcome Hearts to Dingwall; St Mirren are at Motherwell, and Aberdeen make the trip down the east coast to Dundee.
The Terrors have already beaten Hibs convincingly at Easter Road although Hibs have won twice at Tannadice, once in the league and once in the Premier Sports Cup.
Livingston and St Johnstone have a win apiece and a draw from their last three meetings, while the Staggies have drawn their last three home games with Hearts. Of the last seven league meetings between Motherwell and St Mirren there have been four draws, one ‘Well win, and two Buddies victories.
As for Aberdeen and Dundee, there hasn’t been a draw between the two teams since May 2015 with one win for either side so far this term.
The league campaign so far this season paints an unpredictable picture. As things stand Hibs’ top-six destiny, if you like, is still in their hands, but they have to beat Dundee United on April 2, after the international break.
Hibs don’t have the worst record at Tynecastle in recent seasons but facing your rivals on their turf needing three points would be an immensely tense way to end the pre-split fixtures.
Before the Aberdeen game Hibs were unbeaten in six. United have also only won two away games in five months, and three all season. And yes, one was against Hibs, back in October.
At the time of writing Maloney has been in post for 91 days, including the winter break. The team is in a better position than it was when he came in but the loss of Martin Boyle in January has hit Hibs hard. Since the turn of the year Hibs have scored just 11 goals in all competitions and played out five goalless draws. There have been jeers at the end of some of those stalemates, and following some defeats. Fans seem unconvinced by the team and performances.
However, there are positives: the defence has been shored up, some problem positions have been addressed, and there have been some signs of progress.
The main negative is that not enough goals are being scored.
Maloney has had an astonishing run of misfortune with injuries and has openly said that the team needs reinforcements in attack, which is likely a nod to losing Boyle. He doesn’t seem to be feeling any pressure and despite the Hibs hierarchy emptying Jack Ross 18 days after he led the team to a 3-1 victory over Rangers in the semi-finals of the Premier Sports Cup, the gut feeling is that Maloney will be given time to build a squad of his own capable of playing the way he wants to.
It wouldn’t be a great look for those upstairs if they removed another manager not long after appointing him, either, but that’s not to say the Hibs boss has a ‘free pass’ either. There are still expectations on Maloney with the club one game from the Scottish Cup final and still chasing fourth. But he has always stressed that turning things around will take time. He hasn’t explicitly called on Hibs fans to judge him after a full season but that appears to be the underlying hope.
The club has a good chance of finishing in the top four and reaching the Scottish Cup final.
It could end up being a very good season for Hibs when, not so long ago, things looked pretty bleak. But they aren’t out of the woods yet.
A situation not dissimilar to 2016 could arise in which Hibs win the Scottish Cup after being beaten in the League Cup final, but underachieve in the league.
Whether or not the fans would be as accepting this time around remains to be seen.
The targets for Hibs at the start of the season were to win a cup and finish in the European places. By December that looked to be in serious jeopardy but three months later it is back on the cards.
We will learn a bit more about the current Hibs team over the next few weeks. It could turn out to be a memorable season for Hibs, against some odds, but it could also be another campaign ending in a feeling of underachievement.
That is where the fans are slipping in their support. Hearts being 16 points clear in third doesn’t help. Neither does a relative paucity of exciting, attacking football.
The international break might have come at a good time for Hibs. A chance to regroup, for returning players to be available for selection, and to refocus on the task in hand.
At the moment, the priority is three points against Dundee United. Anything less – for the fans, players, management, and backroom staff – doesn’t bear thinking about.