It’s scarcely believable that, a month ago, Hibs were sitting eighth in the Premiership table, five points off a top-six finish in a season which appeared to be drifting away from them.
Today, not only is that place in the top half of the league not only firmly in their grasp, all eyes are now now on catching Capital rivals Hearts, who previously had looked out of sight.
To put it down to a “new manager bounce” following the arrival of Paul Heckingbottom would be wrong. The turnaround has been going on far too long for that to be the case, 13 points out of a possible 15 testament to the work that’s gone on behind the scenes but also the fact he had inherited a decent squad of players who had been under-performing.
“You have to get used to managers coming and going,” said midfielder Marvin Bartley of the departure of Neil Lennon and Heckingbottom replacing him. “It’s just part of the game. The manager has set us up the way he wants to play. They are both very good managers in their own right. The hard work we are putting in on the training pitch is now starting to show on match days. It’s good.
“It’s not been disruptive because we have got a good bunch of lads there. The changing room and the mindset of the players is massive. If you have the wrong sort of people in there, they almost down their tools if the manager changes.
“That’s not happened. Everybody has taken on board what he has said. We have to continue to do that. We’ve not done anything yet. We have had a good start but, as you know, good starts don’t mean anything. The team down the road [Hearts] had a good start and now we’re two points behind them.”
In his early days in charge, Heckingbottom insisted he’d adopt a “slowly, slowly” approach for fear of overloading his players with too much detail as to what he wanted implemented, but it’s clear that even after only a few weeks his ideas are taking hold.
“Tactically, on the training pitch,” answered Bartley when asked what was the biggest thing the former Barnsley and Leeds United boss had brought to Easter Road. “He lets you know exactly what he wants from you. You run through different things that could happen in the match and it’s very much driven into players daily. If your mate goes there, where do you need to go? His organisation is very, very good.”
All of which was all too evident as Hibs dealt with the very real threat of Motherwell, the Premiership’s in-form team with only one defeat in eight matches and just two points behind before this game kicked off.
There was a structure and understanding despite a new 4-5-1 formation with Flo Kamberi operating wide on the left, Mark Milligan and Paul Hanlon composed and controlled in central defence, Stephane Omeonga adding a verve and energy in the middle of the park while Marc McNulty and Daryl Horgan linked together superbly to stretch the visiting defence time and again.
It was that combo which brought the opening goal, an exchange of passes seeing Horgan hit the bye-line for McNulty, whose shot struck the hands of Tom Aldred, the in-form striker dispatching the resulting penalty to celebrate his Scotland call-up with his seventh goal for Hibs.
Skipper David Gray powered home a header two minutes from the interval leaving the home side, who had survived a first minute scare when Lewis Stevenson turned a Gboly Ariyibi cross onto his own post, to manage the game out, content to keep Motherwell at arm’s length while looking to hit on the break.
Horgan should have finished it but goalkeeper Ofir Marciano, who had been rarely troubled, earned his clean sheet as he got down superbly to turn away Aldred’s late header.
But perhaps what has been all the more impressive fact behind Heckingbottom’s transformation is that it’s been done with a threadbare squad, his numbers further depleted for this one by Darren McGregor’s suspension leaving a bench which, other than Bartley, comprised of academy players.
“I was flipping baby-sitting wasn’t I?” said Bartley who himself is just back from an injury lay-off. “I was a grandad. I was looking across at them thinking, ‘there is not a beard in sight’. I haven’t got much of a beard myself.
“We will be in a better place after this break and a few of the boys are back. Big Daz was suspended and he will be available also. The squad might look a bit older.”
Having comfortably moved into the top six with three games to go before the split, Heckingbottom insisted targets have changed, revealing his players now have Hearts very much in their sights having heard of the Jambos’ surprise defeat at Hamilton as they arrived back in the changing room.
He said: “When we first came in we were quite a bit behind and the short term goal was the top six and it still is. The bigger picture is trying to get better all the time and we are displaying really good form at the minute. And if that becomes the norm our targets might be better next season.”