Twelve goals, a raft of assists and, as things stand, more starting appearances than any other Hibs player this term means Stevie Mallan can be pretty satisfied with the way his big move from Barnsley to Easter Road has gone so far.
He acknowledges that there have been tough times in his first season in Edinburgh, specifically a dip in form mid-campaign as the team plummeted from second to eighth in the Premiership under Neil Lennon. But, having remained a regular starter as Paul Heckingbottom has hauled Hibs back into the top half of the table, Mallan is pleased with the way he has come through that testing period.
“I’ve had my highs and I’ve had my lows this season,” said Mallan in an interview with the Evening News. “I started off with a bang. I was scoring goals and I was flying, I felt like I was on cloud nine. But then it dulled a bit towards the middle of the season. I know my performances could and should have been better but that can happen in football. I’ve always been my biggest critic, so I usually know what I need to do better. It’s all about bouncing back and I feel as if I’ve picked up again recently and started to do a bit better. Hopefully I can keep this run of form going.”
Mallan was raved about by supporters and pundits alike as he banged in the goals in his early months but subsequently criticised as he struggled to maintain his promising start. With his only previous experience of being a regular starter having come at St Mirren, where demands and expectations are generally more modest, the recently-turned 23-year-old admits his first season at Easter Road has been a learning curve.
“It’s part and parcel of coming to a club like Hibs,” he said. “I’ve probably never experienced the accolades I’ve had and then obviously if you have a bad game it goes the other way. I’ve never experienced that before. It’s such a massive club and the fans just want winners and players doing well. It’s a hard task but that’s exactly why I’m here. I want to stand out, I want to do the best I can and play at the highest level I can. Hopefully I can keep progressing and improving between now and the end of the season.”
Mallan believes that the fact he has started 38 competitive games, after starting only five at Barnsley last year, vindicates his decision to sign a four-year deal with Hibs last summer. “I felt like Hibs was the right club to come to and I’ve never looked back – I’ve loved it,” said the former Scotland Under-21 internationalist.
“I think this season will stand me in good stead for the rest of my time at Hibs. Your first year at a new club is always difficult because you’re going into a new team with new faces but since day one I feel like I’ve bedded in well. I feel like I’ve grown as a player since I came here. Coming off last season, all I wanted was a consistent run of games, and I’ve definitely had that.
“I’ve played a lot more than I expected and I can only thank the old manager and the new manager for that. It’s good to have this first season almost under my belt and now I know what I need to do to kick on.”
Mallan has been used in several positions across midfield so far. At St Mirren, he was generally used in a more attacking role, while Lennon predominantly used him in a deep-lying midfield role, while he was moved out to the right flank in the first few games under Paul Heckingbottom.
He is open-minded about how his game will evolve in the years ahead. “To be honest, I’ve played that many positions I’ve not got a clue where I see myself playing long term,” he said. “I’ve had good games and bad games in each position I’ve played. As long as I’m playing, I don’t care what position it is. You could put me at right-back and I’d be happy. I just want to be playing.”
The fact Mallan played so few games under Heckingbottom at Barnsley had some observers speculating over whether the midfielder would remain so prominently involved when the Yorkshireman arrived at Easter Road in February. The head coach was quick to debunk any notion that he didn’t rate the midfielder and has started him in five of his six matches in charge so far.
Mallan reports that Heckingbottom, pictured left, still goes about his business in the same meticulous manner that helped make him such a success at Oakwell before his brief and ill-fated stint at Leeds United.
“He’s basically exactly the same as the guy I knew from Barnsley,” said Mallan. “When he came in, I wasn’t sure if he’d have maybe brought in new ways of working from his time at Leeds or whatever, but he generally works the same way he did at Barnsley. That’s obviously made it easier for me to get used to working with him again.
“He’s big on video analysis, tactical work and defensive shape and stuff like that, so he’s implemented a lot of things that I had seen at Barnsley. I’ve been speaking to boys, asking how they’re finding it, and everyone’s buzzing off it. He’s so in depth with what he does that everybody knows what they’re doing. He’s coming across really well with all the boys and that’s why we’re thriving.”
Heckingbottom’s impact has coincided with a five-game unbeaten run in the Premiership which has lifted Hibs from eighth place into the top six.
“When we were in that position a few months ago it was tough,” said Mallan. “We had such a good squad but we just couldn’t seem to find the wins. Most of the time the performances were there but we just weren’t grinding games out. We couldn’t keep clean sheets or score the goals we needed.
“When a new manager comes in, things usually change. A new manager brings a new way of playing and he’s a fresh face who everybody wants to impress. Since the new manager has come in, everybody has kicked on. We’re a winning team and that’s the way everyone at Hibs wants it. We want to keep it going until the end of the season.”