Paul CAIRNEY admitted his first taste of SPL action had proved to be something of a chastening experience, Hibs crushed 3-0 by Dundee United as the former Partick Thistle midfielder made his bow in the top flight.
Not quite how the 24-year-old had envisaged it but today, while conceding the result will only add to the pressure on Pat Fenlon’s players ahead of their first clash with Hearts since their Capital rivals inflicted a 5-1 mauling in the final of the Scottish Cup three months ago, Cairney insisted he and his Easter Road team-mates can bounce back from their opening-day setback.
As Fenlon pointed out in the wake of that disappointment at Tannadice, Hibs are very much in the early throes of what is likely to be a long rebuilding process, 16 players released at the end of last season while the signing of Coventry City’s Gary Deegan brought the number of summer arrivals to just six.
Cairney fully expects further fresh faces to join Tim Clancy, James McPake, Ben Williams, Leigh Griffiths and himself in the near future as that process continues following two seasons of bitter disappointment for the green and white army, but he insisted that even so Fenlon’s new-look Hibs side need to find their feet – and quickly.
Although a trip to Tannadice to face a side which already is being widely tipped to finish closest to title favourites Celtic was always going to be a tough proposition, Fenlon afterwards revealed he’d been both disappointed and baffled at the nature of his team’s performance, saying: “Our pre-season was okay, so I don’t know what you put it down to.
“We will have to have a good look at it again and pick the bones out of it to see where we went wrong.”
Fenlon will hardly have sat down to view the DVD before the first evidence emerges, an opening goal – which he described as “shocking” – after just three minutes from Johnny Russell paving the way for what ultimately proved to be both a comfortable and convincing win for United thanks to further strikes from Jon Daly and Michael Gardyne.
Cairney said: “You are always looking to get off to a good start, you don’t want to lose a goal that early. It was a real setback. I was delighted to be in the side but it is hard to enjoy a game like that, it was a hard shift in the middle of the park.
“We knew it was going to be a difficult game with a lot of people tipping them to finish second this season. But we thought the fact they were playing in the Europa League the Thursday night before might be a bit of an advantage to us.
“But United appeared to have come out of that game against Dynamo Moscow on a high. They created more chances than us while we were disappointed that we hardly made any.”
In fact, a deflected effort from Leigh Griffiths which looped harmlessly into the hands of goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak was the only shot Hibs managed on target in the entire 90 minutes, the on-loan Wolves hitman having been deployed as a lone striker with 18-year-olds Danny Handling and Ross Caldwell Fenlon’s only options in that department for the time being. Cairney, though, is convinced everything will fall into place.
He said: “Sunday was always going to be a massive game but it’s even bigger for us now. You don’t want to find yourself being left behind this early in the season so we have to bounce back for the fans and the gaffer.”
There is, of course, a longer-term target for Fenlon, to lift a side which has finished tenth and 11th respectively in the last two seasons to a more respectable position, preferably in the top half of the table.
As such further new recruits will be on their way, perhaps not as quickly as Fenlon and supporters may like, but Cairney is confident Hibs will strengthen, as they must on the evidence of the weekend.
After scoring 15 goals for Partick last season, there were those at Tannadice who were surprised to see Cairney line up alongside Lewis Stevenson in Fenlon’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation rather than further forward, the player himself admitting he’d prefer such a role. He said: “I’d like to get a bit further forward and get the chance to get a few goals.
“But I’m happy to play anywhere and do the best I can. It was a disappointing start for us all but I am sure we’ll bounce back from it.”