Analysis: How a Hibs ten-game unbeaten run is becoming the norm
For the fifth season in succession, Hibs have now sustained an unbeaten run of ten league games or more.
Sunday’s 1-1 draw at home to Hearts made it ten in a row without defeat in the Premiership since Paul Heckingbottom arrived in February. Such periods of invincibility, spanning more than a quarter of a season, are becoming the norm down Easter Road way. At this time last year, Neil Lennon’s team were nearing the end of a 12-game unblemished sequence which ran from the end of January to early May and carried Hibs into the thick of the battle for second place before they eventually had to settle for fourth and a Europa League qualifying berth.
The season before that – in what was Lennon’s first in charge – Hibs’ surge towards the Championship title was based on two separate ten-game unbeaten runs which, incidentally, came either side of a rogue 2-0 defeat at St Mirren in March 2017.
In Hibs’ first two seasons in the second tier, Alan Stubbs oversaw a 13-game unbeaten run in 2014/15 and then a burst of 14 without loss in the first half of the 2015/16 campaign. Although not enough to bring promotion at the first or even second time of asking, those runs played a part in Hibs developing some much-needed resilience following several years immediately prior to relegation when they endured a regular flow of defeats and were widely deemed one of the softest teams in the top flight.
Indeed, as they sit in the relative comfort of fifth place on the back of their latest impressive run, it is worth recalling the stark contrast of five years ago, when Terry Butcher’s Hibs were ending the regulation campaign with a wretched 13-game run without victory before they plummeted haplessly out of the top flight through the play-offs.
As evidenced by his clear frustration at dropping two points against Hearts on Sunday, however, there is no chance of Heckingbottom drawing any major solace from merely reaching ten in a row unbeaten. The head coach knows that if fourth-place Kilmarnock are to be caught in the race for a potential Europa League qualifying berth then his team will almost certainly have to remain unbeaten in their final three matches.
Sitting four points adrift of the Ayrshire side with just nine points to play for, there is clearly very little – if any – margin for error. It is not just a case of taking their undefeated run to 13 matches; Hibs must also find a way to get back on the victory trail after winning only one of their last four. To have a chance of climbing into fourth place, they will probably require three wins from their trips to Rangers and Kilmarnock and their season-ending fixture at home to Aberdeen. Even then, they would be reliant on Hearts or Rangers doing them a favour by taking a couple of points off Killie.
If – as seems likely – Europe ultimately proves to be beyond them, there is still incentive aplenty for Hibs to try and extend their strong run of form until the end of the campaign, with Hearts lurking just three points beneath them in sixth place. In a season when their top-four prospects were badly undermined by an uncharacteristic slump in the closing three months of Lennon’s reign, finishing above their city rivals for a second year running – a feat not achieved since the mid-1990s – would represent a satisfactory outcome and ensure supporters go into the summer break with a spring in their step.
The Tynecastle side have the chance move level with Hibs if they beat Kilmarnock at Tynecastle on Saturday, which would raise the stakes ever so slightly for the Easter Road side as they travel to Ibrox on Sunday. Rangers have been in excellent form recently, with impressive wins over Hearts (twice), Motherwell and Aberdeen in their last four matches, but Hibs can take heart from the fact they are unbeaten in their last five against Rangers – albeit four were draws – and have generally performed well at Ibrox in the post-relegation era.
If they are able to leave Glasgow unscathed on Sunday, Heckingbottom and his team are entitled to fancy their chances of seeing out the remainder of the season undefeated. Such an outcome would represent a major signal of intent from the Yorkshireman in the opening months of his Hibs reign.