Given Hibs have managed just one SPL win at Easter Road all season, the fact three of their last four league matches will be “on the road” may just be a blessing in disguise, winger Ivan Sproule claimed today.
While most clubs would seek the comforts of home, particularly when they are battling against the threat of relegation as Pat Fenlon’s team are, the bald statistics show Hibs fare better on their travels than on their own turf. That point was underlined again as a penalty from former Hibees star Dean Shiels was enough to earn Kilmarnock victory in the first of the “post-split matches.”
But with successive away games coming up – a trip to Paisley to face St Mirren on Sunday (kick-off 3.15pm) being followed by the long journey north to Aberdeen on Wednesday – Sproule believes he and his team-mates can take important steps towards securing their top-flight status at the expense of basement outfit Dunfermline.
The Northern Ireland internationalist said: “We’d much rather be doing it in front of our own supporters, but the fact of the matter is our performances away from home have been better and we’ve picked up more points from those games.
“It’s a frustration, but that’s been the name of the game all season.”
Sproule, in his second spell in a green-and-white shirt having moved back to Edinburgh from Bristol City last summer, freely admits it has been far from the season he envisaged when he put pen to paper on that deal.
A CIS Insurance Cup winner last time round, he said: “No-one is shying away from the fact we have not played great football at Easter Road this season. It has not been the best, we have tried to improve and at the end of the day it is not a lack of effort.
“Having said that, it has to change for next season. But at the moment we have a big job on our hands to make sure we stay in this division.”
Sproule and his team-mates find themselves in the strange position of battling it out with the Pars to avoid the drop while contemplating the mouthwatering prospect of the greatest Edinburgh derby of all-time, next month’s Scottish Cup final against Hearts.
And while some fans may claim they’d happily swap dipping into the First Division if it meant Hibs ending their 110-year wait for the Cup, Sproule insisted hard-headed facts must over-ride any such romantic notions.
He said: “I’d far rather be in our shoes than Dunfermline’s, six points ahead with four games left but we still have a fight on our hands. I believe that within our dressing-room we have the capability to keep ourselves up but SPL survival is not a given.
“I have no qualms about saying to anyone staying in the league is more important to me than winning the Cup. For this club to go on to bigger and better things it’s got to be in the SPL. It needs to be attracting a higher standard of player and you are not going to do that if you are down playing in the First Division.
“The notion of swapping the Cup and taking relegation is nothing but a bit of romanticism. The financial implications would be huge, not just for individuals but the club as a whole. For me, as a father with two children and my wife, I have to provide and the way I can do that is to make sure I am playing and at the highest level I can.
“People say football must be a great job but that’s what it is, a job, the way you make your living. And, of course, there would be no guarantee of coming straight back up.
“Look at the Championship in England and even the First Division here and you can see how hard it has been for some big clubs to do it.
“People will get carried away and there’s a lot of good players who have never got their hands on the Cup but my 100 per cent concentration has always been on the league.
“You enjoy your one-off days when it comes to the Cup, but the bread and butter is the league and I am certain the gaffer and his coaching staff will leave no stone unturned, they’ll have every player focused and ready to go for the three points against St Mirren.
“It’s been a strange season. We’ve sat talking in the past of finals, of cup wins, of a push for Europe and playing in Europe. But football throws up different challenges and this is a different challenge for all of us.
“We’ve all seen teams struggle at the bottom of the league one season and the next year, with a couple of changes in the playing staff and the manager having tinkered a bit with the squad they get it right again.
“You have to look forward, you can’t dwell in the past. The manger is right when he said we don’t have one cup final but five and that’s the way every player has to grasp every game for the rest of the season.”
Hibs play 24 hours after Dunfermline for the second week in succession, the Pars having picked up a point in Paisley before Fenlon’s side lost to Killie and while some believe playing second can be an advantage, Sproule insists both teams should be kicking off at the same time.
He said: “The way the fixtures have fallen is disappointing because I would rather the same day and time, that’s the way football should be done.
“Dunfermline got a good point last week and I certainly think there’s fight within their squad. Like ourselves, it’s their livelihoods and they’ll be fighting tooth and nail to keep themselves up.”
Although St Mirren are safe from the threat of relegation Sproule believes Danny Lennon’s side will prove tough opposition.
He said: “I think he has done a great job there, I’ve been impressed by them.
“Danny has made some good additions to his squad that have worked but I don’t think they’ll be relaxing at all.
“They’ll have players out-of-contract, guys looking for a new deal and so will be looking to impress in every game they play.
“I don’t think you can take your foot off the pedal whether you are top, middle or bottom of the league.”