Must win for Hibs? How previous third place battles highlight the importance of victory in Dingwall
Listen to certain opinions and Hibs travel to Dingwall this weekend for a must-win fixture.
A game with the potential to set the tone for the Premiership run-in, and, yes, possibly help determine the Easter Road side’s ability to clinch a third-place finish by the time the season reaches its denouement, it will decide nothing in isolation.
As such, the do or die billing of their game in hand over nearest rivals Aberdeen overstates the importance of one 90 minutes.
It does, however, remain hugely significant, not just for the three points at stake, but the part they could play in plumping up the cushion between them and the team who shaved a point off that lead last weekend.
With just six games of a long, strange and, at times, arduous season left after the upcoming Highland fling, a six point gap would help relieve some of the pressure and stress undoubtedly building in Leith as they make their final push towards their pre-season target becoming a reality.
With so little to separate the teams through the course of the 30-plus games played thus far, the determining factor over the final couple of months could be the mood in the respective camps as the battle is played out in the mind, not just on the pitch.
“Usually the guys who get to the very top have the strongest mindsets as well as having talent,” said the Hibs manager Jack Ross back in January, when discussing the resilience of his side as they looked to rebound from their League Cup exit and a period of inconsistency in terms of the results being carved out.
The squad’s mental resolve has been questioned this season as they built momentum in the league but were seen to stumble whenever the stakes rose. Ousted by a Championship side in last season’s delayed Scottish Cup semi-final and then bettered at the same stage of the Scottish Cup - both games against teams ranked below them - it was only recently that they managed to piece together a performance capable of triumphing in head to heads with Aberdeen, while laudable performances against Celtic and Rangers were not enough to placate some disgruntled fans who expect more tangible returns.
Critics say that adds up to a pattern of mental weakness whenever the chips are down and bemoan the fact that when presented with the chance to all-but kill off Aberdeen’s challenge in recent weeks they allowed the momentum to stall.
“The guys here have got to a very, very good level because, I would argue, their mindset is a lot stronger than those who don't get to that level. But they will still have flaws, like all of us have, and weaknesses at times. I think acknowledging it is a good starting point rather than shying away from it and pretending it’s not there,” added Ross back in January.
But, sitting third, with just seven games remaining Ross has reminded his players that they are still in the driving seat.
After a difficult start to the year, they stole a march on the Dons by racking up six games unbeaten, and despite two losses in their most recent outings, the Pittodrie side bagged just one point from six in that time to minimise the damage done.
That form saw the club part company with manager Derek McInnes, upping the ante this weekend. With Aberdeen idling, Hibs have the chance to put more daylight between them and offset any signs of revitalisation under Dons’ interim management team of Paul Sheerin, Barry Robson, and Neil Simpson.
Win and they are the team buoyed, lose and it is Aberdeen who receive the timely confidence boost.
Notable positional tussles between the teams in over the years would suggest that six points would be an almost-impossible gap for Aberdeen to overhaul in such a limited number of fixtures.
There were four points between the clubs going into the final six games of the 2004/05 season. That was the last time Hibs finished third and they did so despite winning just once in that run in. A couple of draws and a superior goal difference helped keep their challengers at bay but it illustrates just how difficult it is to overcome such a gap when playing the best clubs in the country.
It was the same in 2017/18, when Hibs were the team going all out to chase down eventual second-place finishers Aberdeen and Rangers, who pipped them to third on the final day of the campaign.
With six games left Aberdeen were four points ahead of Neil Lennon’s Hibs, but with everyone battling for something, although Hibs only lost one of their final half a dozen games, draws killed them and their peers extended their advantage to six points and three points respectively.
That tells Ross and his players that while they cannot afford to simply glide home, a win on Saturday could place a big enough void between them and even a reinvigorated Aberdeen team.
Not exactly a must-win game, there will be pressure right up to the finish line regardless whether they win or lose on Saturday.
What is certain is that win or lose, they remain in control but three points could be huge in stopping any rot, and denying the demons the opportunity to claim squatters rights in their minds as they try to ensure they are the first Hibs squad in 16 years to end the term in third.