For many SPFL teams, this weekend marks the end of a long, hard season. In the eyes of Liam Henderson, however, the decisive phase of Hibs’ campaign is only just beginning.
Like last term – when Alan Stubbs’ team won at Falkirk to pip Rangers to second place – the final day’s play in the regulation Championship season will dictate whether the Easter Road side finish second or third in the Championship.
Hibs will probably require a victory, and possibly one of at least a four-goal margin, at home to Queen of the South on Sunday in order to reduce their potential route back to the Premiership from six high-intensity play-off matches to a slightly more manageable four. And if they reach the two-legged play-off final, they will contest the Scottish Cup final against Rangers at Hampden in between.
From now on in, the margin for error is minimal if Hibs are to achieve their main objective of promotion, and their additional target of Scottish Cup glory.
Everything they have done over the previous nine months of the season – long unbeaten runs, impressive cup exploits and unforeseen early-spring collapses – will count for virtually nothing in comparison to what they do over the coming three and a half weeks. “The boys are now in the mindset that this is basically the beginning of the season for us,” Henderson said. “We’re going into a run of fixtures that will define the season so everybody’s really switched on. The end of the season isn’t in our minds just now because we’re so focused on doing the job we want to do.
“It would be some season if we could get promoted, win the Scottish Cup and reach the League Cup final, but the season’s nowhere near finished. We’ve got potentially eight games left, so we’re just focused on winning each match.
“We’re definitely over that dip we had earlier in the season, 100 per cent. Every team has a bad run but ours came at a terrible time. It’s completely at the back of our minds now. I think people forget we’ve just reached two national cup finals in a row. We can still achieve our objectives. I think we’ve shown that we’re a really good side who play some lovely stuff and put in the work, so I’ve got no worries about us going into the play-offs.”
If Hibs are to finish second, they will require a favour from Morton, who visit Falkirk, or will have to outscore the Bairns by at least three goals. In simple terms, a 1-0 Falkirk win coupled with a 4-0 Hibs victory would allow the Easter Road side to pip Peter Houston’s men by virtue of their better head-to-head record. They are currently separated by goal difference.
Henderson insists Hibs won’t go all-out attack against Queens as they need to make sure they win the game first and foremost. Although he is of no mind to rely on others, the on-loan Celtic midfielder is quietly confident that Morton, who are unbeaten in their last two games against Hibs, could take something off Falkirk, which would mean any victory would be enough to take his own team back into second. “We just want to make sure we beat Queen of the South and see what happens,” said Henderson. “Falkirk have been good this season. They’re a very tough side to play against but Morton are also a really good side. I put a few of the Morton boys in my team of the year so hopefully they can do us a turn.
“If it comes to a stage in the game where it looks like goal difference is going to be a factor, we know we’ve got boys who can score goals if we need to push for it towards the end. Keatsy [James Keatings] got a hat-trick the other night, Stokesy [Anthony Stokes] scored as well and Jason [Cummings] has been unbelievable all season.”
At a time when many had already declared that the Hibs bubble had burst, Henderson has been encouraged by their recent form. A comprehensive 4-0 demolition of Dumbarton came soon after a hard fought Scottish Cup semi-final win over Dundee United and an impressive victory over Championship winners Rangers. He insists the swashbuckling nature of the win over the Sons proves they are still in good condition for the season-defining period.
“I thought it was a very professional performance on Tuesday. We played extremely well and started at the right tempo and the fans got behind us early on. I thought everybody was on it from the word go. We looked really sharp and scored some lovely goals. We should probably have had a few more in the end.
“The goal difference situation probably drives us on a bit extra but the manager said he didn’t want us to get caught up in having to score loads of goals. He wanted us to win the game first and foremost, and we managed to do it.”
Henderson was rested for the Rangers game, while fellow youngsters John McGinn and Jason Cummings have had the same treatment in the last two matches. The on-loan Celtic player is adamant that he feels fresh as a daisy and is not feeling the effects of Hibs’ rigorous fixture load.
“I just turned 20 on Monday, so I’m still a pup compared to most of the boys,” he said. “I could play three games in a week, no problem. I’m flying just now. I’m still feeling really fresh. I think the rest of the boys are coping fine with the heavy fixture schedule. The recovery stuff and the facilities we have here are first class, so we’ve got everything we need to help us deal with the run of the fixtures.”
Henderson knows he is approaching the end of his Hibs career, with a return to his parent club beckoning, but this is a season he will always remember fondly. “The plan is that I’m here until the last game of the play-offs and then going back to Celtic, but right now Celtic are not in my mind,” he said. “I’m 100 per cent focused on Hibs. I’ll just wait and see what happens in the summer. The manager here is the first one that’s put faith in me week in, week out, so I just want to repay him and everyone else at Hibs. It’s been the best period of my career so far. I’m playing in a great side and I’ve made a lot of great friends who I’ll always keep in touch with no matter where I end up.”