Neil Lennon has urged his players to seize the chance to finish second in the Premiership table – because they might never get the opportunity to do so again.
Hibs currently sit fourth, but know a win against Hamilton tonight could take them to just a point behind Rangers, second on goal difference from Aberdeen, who face a tricky trip to play Motherwell at Fir Park this evening. And, insisted Lennon, another victory over basement outfit Ross County in Dingwall on Saturday in what is the final round of fixtures before the split would give the Easter Road club a good platform going into what he described as the “gargantuan” games which would then follow.
Lennon, however, is taking nothing for granted, pointing out how Hibs haven’t beaten Hamilton this season, He does, though, believe if his players can produce greater urgency than they did in the first half of their 2-0 win against Partick Thistle at the weekend and replicate what they produced in the last half-hour of that match, then they’ll be in with a good chance of extending their seven-game unbeaten run to eight games.
“It’s a difficult game because they’re a difficult opponent,” said Lennon. “More times than not Martin [Canning, Hamilton’s manager] seems to get a result when they really need it. They gave us a good going over in the third game of the season.
“That was a good lesson, coming up against a real battle-hardened Premiership team, And we may well have that again.
“However, it is a game in hand we have over teams around us and it’s important we maximise the opportunity when it comes.”
Lennon, of course, has vast experienced of pressurised situations both in his playing and managerial career and acknowledged many of his players haven’t, saying: “It’s all good, but it can change very, very quickly.
“It’s important they take the opportunity because they might never get this opportunity again, to be so close to second place with five, six, seven games of the season to go. They’ve played well and handled the big games very, very well.
“For me, they are all big games now, regardless of the opposition. Hamilton want to win the game and Ross County will want to win at the weekend for their own reasons. Every game now is more or less a cup final. After the split, you’re going into gargantuan games again against the top six, it’s very exciting.
“But we have to negotiate these games and give ourselves a good platform going into the split.”
Lennon, who will reinstate Ofir Marciano in goal tonight following his one-match suspension as Cammy Bell has picked up a calf injury, admitted his side are well ahead of where he thought they’d be at this stage of the season.
He said: “We’ve won more games than I could have envisaged. Since the winter break, we lost the cup game, but the reaction to that has been fantastic and they’ve played some stellar football as well. I’m really enjoying the moment.”
Lennon, however, isn’t enjoying some of the tackles he’s seen, the Hibs boss having called for more protection for his players – and midfielder John McGinn in particular – from referees. And he believes action must be taken to stamp it out before a player is seriously injured or lost to the game.
Highlighting Ross County defender Andrew Davies’ red-card challenge on Celtic skipper Scott Brown at the weekend, Lennon said: “Players have to take responsibility for their own actions. There is a problem with tackling in Scotland – some players just can’t tackle.
“I’ve seen some great challenges, but I’ve also seen some horrendous ones where players have not made an attempt to play the ball, just the man.”