Liam Fontaine insists Hibs have the mental strength to cope with being Championship title favourites.
After an encouraging summer and an opening-day victory at Falkirk last Saturday, the first setback of Neil Lennon’s reign came on Tuesday when the Easter Road side suffered a shock Betfred Cup exit at home to Queen of the South. In the wake of this defeat, the manager explained that his players need to learn how to win games every single week in an environment where, even though they appear to be the most talented team, every opponent is desperate to claim their scalp.
Unlike Hearts and Rangers – who were able to generate genuine consistency on their respective marches to the title – Hibs sporadically toiled against some of the supposed weaker sides in the second tier in each of the previous two seasons. Fontaine is adamant that the cup defeat to Queens is not a sign that this season will be another story of costly slip-ups.
“We’re a big club in Scottish football and we’re the biggest club in the Championships so everyone sees us as a scalp,” said the defender. “We have to be able to deal with the pressure it brings. I feel we’re going to be better mentally this year because of experience. Every year you’re in the game you gain experience – losing finals, in play-offs, gaining experience from them all. Last year we had a lot of ups and downs and showed great character to finish on a high.”
Fontaine’s first taste of Scottish football, ironically, came against a Celtic side containing Lennon 11 years ago. During a loan spell from Bristol City as a teenager, the defender made his debut for Jim Jefferies’ Kilmarnock side against Martin O’Neill’s team in a 1-0 defeat at Rugby Park. Fontaine knows that Hibs, if they are to win the Championship this season, must develop the same winning mentality shown by the Celtic team Lennon starred in.
“I actually made my debut in Scottish football and he was in the opposition team,” recalled the defender. “I remember watching him in his time at Leicester and he was always a hungry player, who wanted to win. He has put that across to us and our standards have risen. He sets very high demands, every manager has different expectations of high levels and we’ve all had to raise our fitness levels and training levels, everything has risen. It’s definitely something I have noticed and it will stand us in good stead for the rest of the season. If you are going to be a champion side you have to be able to win games 1-0. If you are not going to score you shouldn’t concede and he’s trying to put that into us. It’s up to us to take it onto the pitch and grind the results out if needed.”
It is these high demands that prompted Lennon to criticise his defence after Hibs threw away a 1-0 interval lead by shipping three goals in the last 25 minutes against Queens. Lennon clearly didn’t see exiting the cup as a blessing in disguise, even though it means Hibs are less likely to have the type of fixture pile-up they had last season when combining a promotion push with reaching the final of both the League Cup and the Scottish Cup.
Fontaine, who missed a golden chance to put Hibs 2-0 up on Tuesday when he headed wide from a James Keatings free-kick, said: “The gaffer’s entitled to give us a piece of his mind. We’re big enough men to be able to deal with it and move on. You don’t want to go out of any competition early, so it’s disappointing to be out of the cup. It’s great to be in competitions like this and get to cup finals – it’s what you play for, to achieve things. I would have liked a cup run but hopefully we’ll get it in the Scottish. The league is our focus.”