Martin Boyle knows the stakes have heightened after his penalty miss allowed title rivals Dundee United to draw level with Hibs at the top of the Championship.
In all probability, had Boyle converted from the spot at Tannadice earlier this month, Neil Lennon’s side would today be sitting six points clear of the Tayside outfit rather than having their noses in front only on goal difference.
Revealing he had a few sleepless nights after watching United goalkeeper Cammy Bell pull off a vital save before Tony Andreu clinched victory for the Arabs from a later penalty award, Boyle said: “I got the nod to take the pen and it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t score. I practise penalties a lot and I thought I was alright at them. I took one in the shoot-out against Brondby earlier in the season so I was confident to step up against United.
“It was just one of those things. If a goalkeeper dives the wrong way then it is a goal and everyone is saying it was a good penalty. To be fair, Cammy’s record speaks for itself when it comes to saving penalties.
“You’ve just got to take it on the chin and move on quickly and we made amends by getting the win against Dumbarton last week. You can’t afford to dwell on it.
“But I think that’s me bumped off the penalties, Jason [Cummings] is back in the team so that’ll be him wanting to take them.”
After a blistering start to the season – Hibs won their opening five league games – some were predicting they’d have the title wrapped up by Christmas but now being neck-and-neck with United, Boyle agreed, every game has taken on an added significance.
Claiming the hectic festive programme, starting with this evening’s game against Morton at Cappielow, could prove crucial, the former Montrose and Dundee forward said: “We never thought it was going to be easy and we’re still not thinking that.
“We just want to play our own game; we were hoping to open a gap but that hasn’t happened. But over the Christmas period everyone is going to get tested and we’ll see who comes out of that. Every weekend is a big weekend. We know the stakes are high in this league and everyone is capable of beating everyone else. We just need to focus on ourselves and try to get back on a good run.”
As Hibs made that turbo-charged start to the season, newly-relegated United made a faltering beginning to life in the Championship but have now embarked on an unbeaten league run of ten matches, a sign, insisted Boyle, that Ray McKinnon’s team have adapted to the demands of Scottish football’s second tier.
Recalling Hibs’ own introduction to the Championship two seasons ago, he said: “We were the same. There were boys here who went down and needed time to adapt.
“St Mirren took a while to adapt too. They have been thrown in at the deep end and everyone can beat everyone.
“There are tough places to go like Dumbarton, Queen of the South, and Falkirk. So yeah, it’s really difficult and we’ve been finding life hard over the seasons. But we just need to look after ourselves and not focus on anyone else.”
Hibs will have the advantage of knowing how United have fared against Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park as they run out at Cappielow to take on Morton this evening but, although he and his team-mates thumped Jim Duffy’s team 4-0 in Edinburgh earlier in the season, Boyle isn’t anticipating anything but a tough 90 minutes with the tight pitch in Greenock hindering their expansive style of play.
The 23-year-old said: “Morton have always been a good team, they have good players. They have already been to a League Cup semi-final so I’m sure they will have high hopes.
“Cappielow is always a tough place to go, it’s a tight pitch, the dressing-room is small and, as soon as we get a touch of the ball, they will be in our faces. The fans will be on our backs. But we are ready for that and I’m sure everyone is looking forward to it.
“At places like Dumbarton, Queen of the South, and Morton it can be tough because of the tight pitch and sometimes you need to adapt.
“We have a few bigger guys this season which might help us, playing off flick-ons from Brian Graham and Grant Holt.
“How United get on will be at the back of our minds, but we’re just thinking about us and how we play.”
A Saturday evening kick-off for a match which will be shown live on television may dissuade a few Hibs fans from travelling but, with club sponsor Marathonbet having laid on 11 free buses for supporters, Boyle is certain they’ll be in Greenock in their numbers.
He said: “The fans have been brilliant on the road and I’m sure they’ll have another good trip.”