With the weekend fixtures bringing the first round of Scottish Premiership matches to an end managers up and down the country will see this as the ideal time to assess exactly where their respective sides stand.
Report cards will be mixed, some happier than others but, as far as Hibs star Alan Maybury is concerned, victory over Aberdeen will allow Easter Road boss Pat Fenlon a reasonable degree of satisfaction, the Capital club having bounced back from a catastrophic start to the season to force their way into the upper half of the table.
A League Cup quarter-final against Capital rivals Hearts also awaits while three points from the visit of the Dons would strengthen the claim from the Easter Road dressing-room that Pat Fenlon’s side can be genuinely considered as one of the contenders for second place given the universal acceptance that Celtic will once again romp away with the title.
Maybury said: “I think everyone will look on this weekend as a good time to take stock after they’ve played all the other teams. We obviously had a slow start to the season, but I think we are now ticking along quite nicely, picking up points. We had a good result against Celtic, although we were a little disappointed not to have hung on for a win having led for so much of the game.
“The focus afterwards was on Celtic with their Champions League match against Ajax coming up rather than how we had played – but we felt we had put in a good performance. Another good result against Aberdeen will, I think, leave us quite pleased with things so far.”
The League table is beginning to take shape with, as expected, Celtic out on their own already, although each week’s fixtures seems to throw up a surprise result – last weekend no different as Partick Thistle inflicted a first home defeat of the season on second-placed Inverness Caley, while St Mirren, who only a few weeks ago were being tipped as relegation fodder, edged to victory in a seven-goal thriller against St Johnstone.
Maybury said: “We all knew Celtic would be up there. Motherwell are going well again, Inverness Caley have been good – although they’ve have a couple of bad results recently, Aberdeen are doing nicely, Dundee United have been a bit up and down. Everyone is trying to get a foothold and we all know that if you can show a bit of consistency you quickly climb that table. It’s all about continuing to pick up points regularly.”
Hibs have been showing more than a modicum of consistency, beaten just once in their last eight league games, a 3-0 setback in Inverness ending a promising unbeaten run only for Fenlon’s troops to bounce back with a hard-fought away win against Partick followed by that well-merited point from the visit of Celtic.
Maybury said: “For whatever reason we were off the pace against Caley and lost soft goals. The pleasing thing, though, was the reaction. We didn’t play well at Firhill – we had to hang on in there, although we did play better in the second half and we got the win. To be honest, it didn’t matter how we got it having lost to Caley and then there was the performance against Celtic.
“So, since losing in Inverness I think we have done well.”
Aberdeen enjoy a two-point advantage over Hibs following their 1-0 win over Dundee United, the carrot for Fenlon’s players being a victory which would see them leapfrog the Dons and, depending on results elsewhere, close in on Caley and Motherwell – who are currently separated only by goal difference – in that battle for second spot.
But, having spent a short spell on loan at Pittodrie before being signed by Dons boss Derek McInnes during his time as manager of St Johnstone, Maybury concedes Hibs will face a tough match with Aberdeen’s eyes on positioning themselves to take over in second place should Caley and Motherwell falter against Ross County and St Johnstone respectively over the course of the weekend.
Hibs have already faced Aberdeen since McInnes succeeded Craig Brown as manager, the sides fighting out a 0-0 draw in Edinburgh – but Maybury believes the former Rangers, Toulouse, West Brom, Dundee United and St Johnstone midfielder is now stamping his own mark on the Dons.
The 35-year-old former Republic of Ireland defender said: “I really enjoyed my time at St Johnstone when Derek was manager. For whatever reason, it did not work out for him when he went to Bristol City. He’d just taken over at Aberdeen when we played them at the end of last season but now he’s getting things the way he wants.
“Derek’s driven as a manager. He and his assistant, Tony Docherty, are a good combination. Derek’s determined to go places. He’s assembled a good squad and we know Aberdeen will work hard, that they’ll be well-organised.”
Like Hibs, Aberdeen have been seen as one of the under-achievers in the top flight of Scottish football for too long. But now both clubs are determined to re-assert themselves among the country’s leading clubs, with McInnes and Fenlon operating on similar lines having welded experience to emerging talent.
Maybury said: “Everyone felt last year that Aberdeen had one of the better squads, but their position in the table didn’t reflect that. Again, people are saying they have a good squad and it’s just a case of getting the best out of it. They have good young players but many felt they needed some experience to go with it and they’ve done that bringing in the likes of Willo Flood and Barry Robson to join the senior guys like Russell Anderson, Jamie Langfield and Scott Vernon, who were already there.
“Flood and Robson are now back in contention after injury as is Anderson, so it will be a tough test – but it’s one we are looking forward to. We’re at home and coming off the back of a couple of decent results, so we are going into the game full of confidence.”
Vernon and Calvin Zola will, Maybury predicted, bring a physical presence up-front for Aberdeen to complement the trickery of last season’s top scorer Niall McGinn. But so, too, he insisted, has the face of the Hibs squad changed, with Fenlon enjoying strength in depth as evidenced by the fact club skipper James McPake has been forced to cool his heels on the bench having recovered from a back injury.
The eye injury sustained by Michael Nelson against Celtic will see McPake start his first league match of the season as he partners Paul Hanlon in central defence, an option which wouldn’t have been available last season.
Maybury said: “The big difference is we have a bigger squad – more quality and strength in depth. Even though he’s captain, James has had to be patient this last month, whereas last season people were maybe rushed back when they weren’t quite ready as they were needed.
“Now the manager has all sorts of options – he has different types of players and can change formations and personnel as he sees fit, such as last weekend when James Collins found himself on the bench.”
No-one is more aware of Fenlon’s options than Maybury, who himself has been afforded the time to fully recover from the thigh problem he picked up in the League Cup win over Stranraer.
Now a player/coach – helping James McDonaugh with the club’s Under-20 side, which has lost just twice in 21 games so far this season – he said: “I tried to be fit for the Partick game but wasn’t quite ready.
“I’ve had to fit my rehab round the other jobs I now do. But I trained yesterday, will do so again today and we’ll see where we are in relation to tomorrow and Wednesday night.”