Mark Oxley believes the lessons learned from last season lie behind Hibs’ current run of 15 matches unbeaten, Alan Stubbs’ players having become ruthless at both ends of the pitch.
While the options open to head coach Stubbs up front are there for all to see – Jason Cummings again leading the way with 14 goals to his name – goalkeeper Oxley and the defenders in front of him have conceded a miserly ten in their 15 Championship matches to date with only four of them having cost the Easter Road side points.
But it’s the 1-0 wins he and his team-mates have clocked up which have given Oxley the greatest pleasure even if such a result isn’t the most eye-catching. It took Hibs until the end of February to record such a result last season – away to Alloa – with only one more such outcome, victory over Rangers in the second leg of their play-off semi-final, to their name.
The Capital club enjoyed another 1-0 win at the Indodrill Stadium on their last outing three weeks ago, their fifth so far this season while Oxley has clocked up 11 shut-outs compared to the 15 Hibs managed last season.
Oxley said: “I love a 1-0, a clean sheet. It wasn’t until late last season we had a 1-0 result, we’d drawn a lot of games or won 2-1, whatever. Now we’ve gone to places like Alloa and Falkirk had held on for a 1-0 when they’ve thrown everything at us.
“Last season there were lads who hadn’t played up here and didn’t know what to expect. I had never played on a plastic pitch and there’s a few in the Championship. Some are better than others but you have to adapt, you cannot use it as an excuse to look back and say ‘I wish I had done better there’.
“Now we know what to expect. Last season we had disappointing results, but now we are looking to put that right by going into every game trying to get the three points.”
Oxley has no doubts that a rock-solid defence allied to a potent strikeforce has provided Hibs with the perfect balance while he also cites the close camaraderie within the dressing-room as contributing to performances on the pitch.
The 25-year-old former Hull City player said: “Sometimes last year we conceded sloppy goals and at the same time missed chances whereas this season with the players the manager has brought in up front we have so many options that a team is not going to know what to expect.
“The manager can mix it up from week to week.
“At the back there’s the confidence that we are going to shut the door if we get a goal ahead. Last year we were hoping we’d get a goal because of the quality in the team but the nous we now have, even having played at this level for a season, you know you have to take your chances. You might only get one chance in a game like we did at Alloa the other week and we took it.
“Last season we conceded so many sloppy goals but the manager recognised that and the way we have started the season we are so hard to beat. The first couple of games didn’t go to plan but now everything has fallen into place.
“It’s not just the back four, it starts with Jason, he recognises, every player does, that when we don’t have the ball they have to work hard to get it back. We’ve become more ruthless at both ends. But there is also a great togetherness among the boys. It’s a group that has fitted in like a jigsaw, there’s not one person in the changing-room you wouldn’t consider to be a friend. It’s a good place to be at the moment.”
Returning to his love of a 1-0 win and recognising many fans might regard such a result against Alloa, the Wasps being the Championship’s basement side, as something of a disappointment, Oxley went on: “It’s important to put your chances away because no team in this league gives up.
“Alloa might only have five points but they are fighting for their lives and every point is precious. It’s never an easy game, especially at their place while when they come here they put ten men behind the ball and are hard to break down.
“You have to remain on your guard. As goalkeeper even if you don’t have much to do you have to concentrate.
“We spend a lot of time on the training pitch on what to expect and how to stop that.”
This week has been no different with preparations for the visit of Falkirk having been meticulous, Peter Houston’s side six points behind Hibs.
Oxley anticipates the Bairns being rather more expansive than some visitors, Falkirk having proved difficult opponents last season even if Cummings’ controversial penalty swung the first meeting of the sides this time round in favour of the Edinburgh outfit.
He said: “For teams at the bottom a point can be precious but Falkirk will want all three. I don’t know how they will set up, but it will be a good game, they have some good players.
“They are looking to catch us like we are looking to catch Rangers so they will have the bit between their teeth. We know what to expect from Falkirk and we have to go into the game full steam. We are where we are on merit but the teams around us are still doing well and we have to take that into consideration.
“The manager has instilled it into us that we can’t overlook anyone but it’s about what we do, not what they do, and that’s what we’ve been working on all week.”