Ray McKinnon believes Hibs’ recent blip in the league cannot be blamed on jitters or their Scottish Cup distractions.
Instead, the Dundee United manager points to the competitive nature of the Championship, which, unlike the tier above, he is convinced is reaching a fascinating conclusion.
Try as they might, Hibs have proved unable to create breathing space for themselves at the top of the league. It means tomorrow night’s televised clash at Tannadice between them and Dundee United, currently lying in third, is invested with the potentially huge significance many wish Sunday’s Old Firm clash could boast.
Celtic’s 27 point lead at the top of the Premiership has prompted debate about the uncompetitive nature of Scotland’s top tier – at least at its summit. One newspaper recently calculated that Celtic’s points-per-game ratio of 2.93 is the highest since Ferencvaros won all 22 of their league games, in season 1931-32 in Hungary.
How McKinnon wishes leading Dundee United back to the top tier could prove so straightforward. Sadly, he has to take into account nine other teams perfectly capable of disrupting his side’s promotion plans. Although remaining unbeaten in all competitions at Tannadice, United have lost five times on the road in the league.
But eight victories out of 12 outings at home have helped keep them in the hunt and means confidence is high ahead of tomorrow’s night clash with Hibs, who they have beaten at Tannadice already this season. This along with Hibs’ recent league stumbles is proof Neil Lennon’s side are beatable.
“It’s a tough league,” said McKinnon. “They (Hibs) have had to come back from being a goal down at Raith. St Mirren have beaten them. This is a tough league and we shouldn’t underestimate it. That’s the key to it. I don’t underestimate this league. That’s why we’re still in the championship (race).”
While United are still indeed very much in contention the frustration is they could be even better placed.
As it stands, they are seven points behind Hibs, who have played one game more. But United could have looked forward to exerting greater pressure on their rivals had they taken more advantage of Hibs’ recent stutter.
But United too have been misfiring, losing heavily to second-placed Falkirk last month and dropping two points at home against Morton, another team currently occupying a play-off spot, on their last league outing.
McKinnon is frustrated but stresses that nothing can be taken for granted in a league he knows so well having guided Raith Rovers to a play-off spot last season.
“It just shows you how tight this league is,” he said. “Hibs have beaten Premiership teams but their run of form recently has not been that great. It’s good in that they’re top of the league, but it shows you how strong the league is. You can’t take anybody lightly in this league. Every game is really, really difficult.
“Everybody gets their period in the season when they get blips. We have had our blip hopefully. They (Hibs) have gone through a wee blip. That’s just part and parcel of league football. You see it in England. You see it all over the world. We’re happy to be where we are. If we get a victory, it’s game on isn’t it? Everybody has their wee periods in the season where you are not at your best. We’re just delighted we are still in it.”
But United’s need for victory is clearly greater than it is for Hibs, who dismantled McKinnon’s side at Easter Road in January on their last meeting. “I just think we weren’t at our best that night and we were punished,” he said of the 3-0 defeat. “We were sloppy.”
McKinnon welcomes back the versatile Lewis Toshney, who has been out with a hamstring strain since the defeat at Falkirk that threatened to sink United’s title aspirations before Hibs’ own recent league difficulties.
Given what’s at stake in the immediate future, McKinnon had understandably little to say on the subject of rivals Dundee’s mooted move from Dens Park to a new ground on the city limits, which has sparked rumours of a ground share with United. Speaking at United’s St Andrews training base yesterday, McKinnon has more pressing concerns.
“I don’t read the papers,” he said. “I kid you not. If it happens, it happens, I think we’ll still be where we are. I’m pretty certain of it.”