The countdown may be on to the second Edinburgh derby of the season but, as far as Hibs forward Martin Boyle is concerned, tomorrow’s clash with Raith Rovers eclipses the visit of Hearts on Wednesday night.
Already six points clear at the top of the Championship table, the short trip to Kirkcaldy gives Neil Lennon’s players the chance to widen the gap on the chasing pack even further.
And, insisted Boyle, that has been the entire focus of the Easter Road squad this week, adamant minds won’t wander during a game which is sandwiched between those two Scottish Cup derbies, the second of which could see Hibs repeat last season’s win over their biggest rivals.
Lennon’s players had been accused of taking their eye off the ball as they dropped vital points when they were held to a draw by Ayr United the weekend before they travelled to Tynecastle, a result which allowed second-placed Dundee United to trim their advantage.
But, just 24 hours before Hibs held Premiership side Hearts to a no-scoring draw in Gorgie, United themselves slipped up, well beaten by Falkirk, and, with Ray McKinnon’s side in Irn-Bru Cup action this weekend, the Capital club now have the chance to open up a nine-point gap with only 12 league matches remaining.
“What greater incentive do we need?” asked Boyle. “It’s not been hard to focus on this game despite everyone talking about the cup replay with Hearts.
“The league is our priority – it has been all season. We want to get promotion this time round and, by winning against Raith, we can open up the gap and turn up the pressure on the teams behind us.”
While Lennon believes Hibs will be “in a strong position” should they secure the three points at Stark’s Park, Boyle insisted the league would be far from over although he conceded it would mean United and the teams immediately behind them, Falkirk and Morton, couldn’t afford to drop many more points.
He said: “It’s that time of the season when you always have a wee look to see how the teams closest to you are doing. We know from the experience of the past two seasons that when you are chasing the pressure is always on to avoid any slip-ups. United have already caught us once this season and we don’t want that to happen again.
“A nine-point lead rather than six is a big difference, but it doesn’t mean a start to the league being over.
“We’ve still got to play United at Tannadice again, Morton home and away and Falkirk at Easter Road so I am sure there will be a lot of twists and turns to come before it is all over.”
Ayr had endured a run of ten matches without a win before, having become the only side to beat Hibs in Edinburgh in the league this season, they pulled off another shock by holding Lennon’s team to a draw.
Similarly, Raith go into tomorrow’s match having suffered a winless streak which stretches to 14 matches going back to late October when a Mark Stewart goal was enough to beat Queen of the South, that strike one of just 22 they’ve scored in their 23 league games to date.
It was a record which proved costly for manager Gary Locke who, along with his assistant Darren Jackson, was sacked ten days ago only hours after a narrow defeat by Morton, the Rovers board moving quickly to name former Hibs skipper and boss John Hughes as his successor.
But, while he admitted Rovers are likely to enjoy an immediate lift from the arrival of Hughes, Boyle admitted to being surprised that Raith, who made the play-offs last season only to be edged out by Hibs before they themselves had their promotion hopes ended by Falkirk, currently find themselves in eighth place and flirting with the relegation play-off place.
Recalling how the Fife club have drawn twice with Hibs already this season, the 23-year-old said: “I honestly think Raith are a good team. They’ve always been up there.
“They’ve got some good players – I know a few of them from our days together at Dundee – and I have to say I’m a bit surprised the way things have gone for them in the past few months.
“I don’t recall coming across John Hughes before but I’ve heard a lot about him – that’s he’s a good manager who’s done well, particularly at Inverness Caley where they won the Scottish Cup a couple of seasons ago.
“Raith have obviously been going through a really sticky spell but I’m sure that will come to an end, that they’ll pick themselves up and get going again.
“In this league, anyone can beat anyone else as we’ve seen all season. By all accounts, Raith shouldn’t have been defeated by Morton in their last game and they came very close to causing a huge upset against Hearts in the cup at Stark’s Park in the last round.
“But, as always, you expect a team to get a bit of a lift when a new manager comes in. I’m sure their fans will also be right behind their side and manager so it will be up to us to make sure John Hughes isn’t celebrating after his first match in charge.”
Regardless of whether Raith had undergone a change in manager, Boyle insisted past experiences would have warned Hibs of another tough game, although he was adamant there’s been no shortage of such tests this season with title favourites Hibs being seen as the scalp to take.
Refuting the suggestion he and his team-mates had been distracted by the prospect of a re-run of last year’s Scottish Cup fifth-round encounters with Hearts as they slipped up against Ayr, Boyle said: “That was a blip, nothing to do with the derby. Teams come to Easter Road, camp in and make life difficult for us.
“They managed to get that early goal and then sat in and made it very hard to for us to break them down.
“We know it is difficult to go to Stark’s Park at any time. It’s a tight pitch, sometimes not the best but it can’t be any worse than the one we played on last Sunday.
“But we’re going with our confidence high, we’ve been on a very good run ourselves, we’ve got strength in depth in the squad, we’ve shown we can match anyone and I’d imagine we’ll have another big Hibs support behind us.
“Obviously it would be perfect for us going into Wednesday night’s derby with a win behind us but while we are looking forward to playing Hearts again, our focus is purely on tomorrow and only once that game is over will we turn our full attention to what’s going to be a huge game for both clubs.”