Mark Oxley believes the euphoria of Hibs’ recent cup exploits will bring fresh impetus to their Championship form.
After an intoxicating few weeks dominated by the knockout competitions, attention now turns to a run of four consecutive league matches in the space of just ten days.
The Easter Road side have coped well so far with fighting on three fronts, as evidenced by a run of 21 wins and only one defeat from their last 27 matches in all competitions. Rousing victories over St Johnstone, in the League Cup semi-final, and city rivals Hearts, after a pulsating two-pronged Scottish Cup series, means they have plenty to look forward to next month.
Prior to their Scottish Cup quarter-final showdown with Inverness Caledonian Thistle two weeks from now (specific date TBC), however, Hibs face Alloa, Morton, Dumbarton and Queen of the South in a sequence of Championship matches that will probably require a maximum 12-point haul if they are to stop Rangers, currently eight points clear, putting the title race to bed.
The hectic schedule may look daunting on paper, but Oxley believes the jubilation from recent results and the excitement of what lies ahead will keep driving the Hibs players as they return to league action at home to the Wasps on Sunday.
“The fact we’re winning big games is definitely helping us keep going,” the goalkeeper told the Evening News. “When the games are coming thick and fast, the confidence we have built up can help the boys who are maybe feeling a bit leggy. It’s at the back of your mind that you’ve got a heavy schedule, but the fact we’re winning makes it a lot easier.
“If we weren’t picking up results and were slogging it out every week, a heavy schedule would be a lot harder for the lads to deal with. We’re on such a good run at the moment, though, that I don’t think the tough run of games is really in our minds. The league is our main aim, but the cup wins breed confidence. Hopefully we can just keep winning.
“The full focus is on Sunday now because we don’t want to fall flat after beating Hearts on Tuesday. We slipped up against Livingston last weekend although I don’t think that was down to complacency. We know what Alloa are all about – they’ll make it hard for us, so we need to be on our game.”
After their Scottish Cup win over Hearts, Hibs have now defeated four Premiership teams in the knockout competitions this season. While such form supports the notion that they are a top-flight team in waiting, it rankles with Oxley that his side are currently second favourites for the Championship title. “Our main aim is to get promoted and when you play games like Tuesday’s, it gives you an extra incentive to get up there,” he said. “We might feel we’re in a false position [in the second tier] but that’s where we are, so we’ve got to play the way we did on Tuesday week in, week out to make sure we get out of this league. It’s frustrating that we’re beating all these top-flight teams and still find ourselves eight points behind Rangers but I think that speaks volumes about how good the league is and how good Rangers are.
“We won’t be far away though. If we win our game in hand, it’s down to five and we’ve still got to play them at Easter Road, so we’re definitely still in the hunt. We’re a confident bunch of lads and we don’t fear anyone. I think we’ve definitely proved we’re a top-level Scottish team. The reason we’re in such a strong position is because of the people the manager’s brought in. It’s credit to him that everyone he’s brought in has bought into what we’re doing.”
Hibs have had their fair share of big occasions of late, with the Easter Road side reaching at least the quarter-finals of all four major knockout tournaments they have contested since Alan Stubbs took charge at the start of last season. In addition to an end-of-season play-off double-header against Rangers last May, they have also had three heavily-billed league showdowns with the Ibrox side this season. No side in Scotland has had as many high-octane fixtures in the past two seasons and Oxley admits the run of big games is helping fuel a big-team mentality among the Hibs players. Victory marches like Tuesday’s, when the players took the acclaim of their supporters while Sunshine On Leith blared out over the sound system, are fuelling their hunger for a return to the top flight.
“The lap of honour was brilliant,” he said. “I experienced it once last season. It’s good for the lads to play in front of a full house – those are the type of games you want to be playing in. I still remember the Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk last season – that was one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever played in and we’ve used the disappointment of that and losing in the play-offs to kick on and pick up results every week. We know how important every game is and that can only stand us in good stead for the rest of the season.
“It would be great if we could get back into the Premiership and try and sell out the stadium more often. I wasn’t here when the club got relegated, but it’s clear from being around the city for the past couple of years that these supporters love their club whatever league they’re in. We want to give them something back.”
Hibs are hotly fancied to take care of Alloa on Sunday, but Oxley noted that his defiant team-mates used up plenty energy to help him earn a 17th clean sheet of the season against Hearts. “The lads in front of me worked their socks off – I thought they were excellent,” said the goalkeeper. “It was important to get the early goal because we spoke before the game about starting with a high tempo. In the first half we were excellent. It’s only natural in football that when you’re 1-0 up in a high-pressure game like Tuesday’s that you start to drop deep. Hearts were probably better than us in the second half, but we still had the chances to score more.
“You want to help the lads out when they’re up against it but, when you’re a goalkeeper, it’s better when you don’t have much to do and are able to take a back seat. I didn’t have much to do apart from a couple of crosses in the first half. For all the pressure they had, I never really felt in any real danger and that’s credit to the lads. Overall I thought we deserved to go through.”