How Lee Johnson hopes to catch out Rangers - and why he believes Hibs can get a result
Seven games unbeaten, five of them wins, three clean sheets, and sitting comfortably in fourth, two points and a game in hand ahead of fifth-placed Aberdeen and five behind Hearts – and all without a handful of key first-team players.
Few who witnessed Hibs meekly turned over by their city rivals twice in the space of three weeks could have predicted such an astonishing turnaround on the park. Defensively they are stronger. Midfielders are bossing matches. Up front there are plenty of threats. Victories have been eked out at notoriously hard-to-go grounds; one-goal deficits turned into emphatic three-goal victories.
Hibs were particularly active in the January transfer window, moving on 12 players in a variety of loan and permanent exits and bringing in three – four, if you count free agent Mikey Devlin who joined in February. The change in form, and in performances, has been seismic.
Manager Lee Johnson has always believed that things would get better, talking of the job at Hibs as a long-term project, a fixer-upper if you will. But despite his faith that Hibs would turn a corner on the park, he admits that one or two tweaks have been made to the team’s benefit.
“I see a difference to a few months ago. We have that resilience factor built up,” he says, looking ahead to the visit of Rangers on Wednesday night on cinch Premiership duty. “The players understand the league better. You can’t always have beautiful football, it’s a battle sometimes. The new players have added a bit of steel to our team and I think that has to come out in these type of games. We will be tested in the next two games against Rangers and Celtic in terms of fitness, concentration levels and organisation.”
There was a moment after the final whistle at the Tony Macaroni Arena on Saturday past when Johnson, buoyed by a comfortable win in front of a 3,500-strong travelling support, went over to show his appreciation to the fans. He wound his arm round several times before defiantly fist-pumping in front of the cheering Hibees. But he hasn’t always enjoyed universal support from the terraces – certainly not during the dismal run of form that preceded the break for the World Cup.
“I believe the majority of the fanbase have understood the challenges we have faced this year, and have enjoyed elements to our performance and stuck with it. I have always said fans should be absolutely allowed to feel how they want to feel, but always support the team.
"If we lose their trust and we gain it back then obviously they support us that little bit more. I'm used to big clubs and this is a big club and I understand how fanbases work and understand the passion, particularly with northern supporters and the further north you go, the more heart-on-the-sleeve it is, and I like that about these clubs,” he adds.
Attention has turned quickly from the win in West Lothian to hosting Rangers in midweek. The last meeting between the two teams ended in a narrow 3-2 victory for Rangers despite Hibs twice leading at Ibrox. The match before that saw two Gers players red-carded before Josh Campbell equalised in injury time to earn Hibs a 2-2 draw in the Capital. It would be a brave football fan who made any sort of prediction for round three, but Johnson has been working hard on how Hibs can hurt Rangers.
“Rangers have improved and the data shows me that they have changed their formation which is getting the best out of individuals; they are narrow, and the full-backs go high and wide. In the middle of the park they overload, and that is hard to play against.
“We are going to need to formulate a plan that can deal with that and hurt them with our assets. We are blessed with pace, energy and running power. I think Rangers will have to be wary of that. Can we bridge the gap in terms of possession and shots on target? That all comes into it. It is a very tough game but we are at the top end of our levels of belief.”
Hibs are not allowing themselves to think too far ahead but Johnson remains committed to making incremental on-field progress.
“We talk about box entries, for example,” he explains. “We want to get an overload in the box, so we can get cutbacks. If you get back into the cutback zone, like Manchester City and Celtic do, your opportunity of scoring is one in five.
“If you can then add another member of your team in the box the opportunity comes down to one in four. So can we get numbers in the box, can we get entries in good areas of the pitch?
“The more we do that the more the data will allow us to score goals. Our goalscoring record is starting to become the product that fans want to see, and we’re tightening it up at the back via a couple of new signings and a lot of implementation in training.”
Wednesday night will also mark the first home game for Hibs since the untimely passing of executive chairman and owner Ron Gordon. A pre-match tribute is planned but a memorial service will be held in Edinburgh on Tuesday to allow those at the club to pay their last respects.
“It’s going to be tough,” Johnson admits. “We want to give the family a big hug each, make sure they are as good as they can be and to be there to support, but also remember our own experiences with Ron and grieve on a personal level.
"The difficult thing for me will be trying to inspire the lads 24 hours later. They showed on Saturday they can cope with that and I feel like the fanbase will give us another 10-15 per cent to our performance as well.”