Neil Lennon’s Hibs have made everyone sit up and take notice following their return to the Premiership after spending three years exiled from the top flight.
The Easter Road outfit go into tonight’s match against Rangers knowing victory will haul them level on points with the Ibrox side as the pair, along with Aberdeen, tussle for second place in the table.
But midfield powerhouse Marvin Bartley firmly believes it was Hibs victory in Govan in only their second match which provided the springboard for the success which has followed.
A goal down to Alfredo Morelos’ third-minute header, it looked as if the Capital club’s status as the Premiership’s “new boys” was about to be hammered home by the side regarded as favourites to be the “best of the rest” behind Celtic.
But Hibs silenced the home fans, Vykintas Slivka’s strike proving to be decisive in what turned out to be a five-goal thriller, providing the massive injection of self-belief which Bartley claims has under-pinned their season.
Bartley missed that game through injury, forced to follow scoreline up-dates via his mobile, but he said: “It was more about how we saw ourselves, just coming up and going to play Rangers at Ibrox.
“It was or us to set a standard and see where we were in the league. To go and beat them was magnificent. It’s one thing believing in yourself without playing games but to start playing and saying “hang on, we actually can do this”, the self-belief was massive.
“Being so early in the season as well, going to maybe the second toughest place there is to go in the league and win was massive.
“There was a buzz around the training ground afterwards because we felt we could go on and do something in this league, to try to be consistent and that’s why we are fourth which, for a team that’s just come up, is not bad.”
In those 90 minutes, insisted Bartley, his team-mates showed they not only had the ability to hold their own in the Premiership but the mentality to cope with a hostile atmosphere, the fact that game was the first between the two clubs since Hibs historic Scottish Cup triumph 15 months previously engendering a decided feeling of rancour among the home support.
He said: “It’s such a big thing. You se a lot of teams that have great quality without doing well. That’s the mental side of things, that we can go there and blank it out.”
And, pointed out Bartley, that day has proved to be far from a one-off, Hibs coming from behind to claim a point at Celtic Park the following month and, only three days ago, shrugging off going two down to Brendan Rodgers “invincibles” to force yet another draw against the champions.
He said: “Again that shows we have the bouncebackability. The gaffer always says teams will score, this is football. It’s about how you react to that.
“If we score first we try to go on and win the game, if we concede first we still try to win it. It’s not concede first and the game is over because it definitely isn’t.
“The gaffer is big on that and that mentality has rubbed off on the players.”
Four months on and Hibs still find themselves very much having a say on how things are unfolding at the top of the table – just as Bartley believed they would given those events at Ibrox.
He said: “It made us feel more confident within ourselves. We thought Rangers would be there or thereabouts so if we could stick on their coattails then we would not be far off it ourselves. Now we go into this game knowing if we beat them we go level on points, that’s where we aim to be.”
If Hibs have gone along steadily in the intervening period, much as changed at Ibrox with manager Pedro Caxinha sacked and Under-20s coach Graeme Murty still in charge of first-team affairs after Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes rejected Rangers’ overtures, much to the surprise of most football fans everywhere.
Bartley, however, insisted he’s not interested in what’s been going on as far as tonight’s opponents are concerned. He said: “We haven’t really looked at their results between then and now.
“We just go into tonight with a bit more confidence because we beat them at their stadium. Perhaps not having a permanent manager might make things a bit different for them.”
Having said that, Bartley admitted he expects the latest encounter with Rangers to be as feisty as ever, with the events at Hampden on that day in May, 2016, still causing some resentment among the fans who’ll occupy the South Stand.
He said: “I think they’ll try to put themselves about, their fans will be quite vocal. But it is our back garden and we will out-sing them, definitely.
“On the pitch I think it will be a lively one and a game where I think we will have to protect ourselves, and we are more than ready to do that.
“If it is going to be a passing game then I believe in us, but if it’s going to be a difficult game we’ll put ourselves on the line.”
The visit of Rangers – apparently revitalised of late with three successive wins – comes sandwiched between Sunday’s clash with Celtic and a trip to take on Aberdeen at Pittodrie on Saturday, a run of matches which, while challenging, is one Bartley insisted he and his team-mates are relishing.
The 31-year-old said: “I know the gaffer says the big games take care of themselves, but we’re a professional bunch and as boring as it sounds, we are never not up for a game. Sunday was brilliant to play in – although we did play on an ice rink. Apart from that it was really enjoyable, although I don’t think the pitch helped us at all.
“The fans were magnificent and playing in such a massive game on television, that’s what dreams are made of. I think we are realists, we know they controlled the game for large parts, so to get a 2-2 draw, we were buzzing.”
Bartley admitted battling back to take a point was important at the start of such an exacting schedule but conceded that when Celtic’s Scott Sinclair scored the second of his two goals he’d have been happy to have heard referee John Beaton’s whistle there and then.
“It was obviously brilliant to come back and a good start for us going into these games,” he said. “We will take confidence from that because we showed great character. Hopefully we’ll take that into tonight, go one better and win. But we’re taking it one day at a time, it’s just about ticking over now and waiting for the next game.”