Neil Lennon will only consider Hibs as genuine title contenders if they are still “in and about it” after the Premiership split following 33 games.
The Easter Road side travel to face champions Celtic today sitting in second place, two points behind rivals Hearts and one ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ side, who are alongside Livingston and Kilmarnock with Rangers making up the current top six.
As such, there has been plenty of talk about a title race for the first time in years, with Celtic winger James Forrest this week claiming Hibs and Hearts should be considered candidates, a suggestion summarily dismissed by Lennon as “a folly” given only eight games have been played.
Hibs are second top on merit following a run of four successive wins but Lennon admitted there are still concerns about what a Celtic side which scored six against St Johnstone last time out might do on their day.
He said: “The team doesn’t need any motivation for the game. They shouldn’t listen to the noise and all the stuff surrounding it and all the plaudits they have had so far – it means nothing.
“If we lose then it won’t change our approach or how we are going to go about our business. People will say that Hibs were only pretenders, that kind of stuff. We never said we were contenders in the first place.
“We are on a good run at the minute and keeping clean sheets. That could change against Celtic and I get that. But all I am looking for is a performance and a good mentality from the team. We went a goal down against Celtic at Celtic Park last season and we came back to lead 2-1 at one stage. That takes a lot of doing mentally, but we are in different circumstances. They are formidable opposition – but it is a game that we know we can compete in and do well.”
Asked when he might consider Hibs in with a chance of winning the title, Lennon replied: “We would have to be 30 games in and maybe even after then. You are looking at 33 games before the split and if you are in or about it then, with five games to go, then you have to say that you are in with a shout.
“Apart from that, any time before that is just folly for me. We are only eight or nine games into the season, not even a quarter of the way through, and people are talking about title contenders.
“Sorry, I don’t buy that, we are not buying that. We will continue on as we are. There are loads of things that can happen. There is Craig [Hearts boss Levein] this week losing two very important players long term through injury and that is allied to the players he already has out.
“I’m not sure we have the experience yet to go the whole way. We had a good season (finishing fourth) last year and if we can end around that, emulate it or better it, then I will be absolutely delighted considering the quality we lost during the summer.”
Lennon will be without club captain David Gray, centre-half Paul Hanlon and winger Thomas Agyepong today through injury while, he revealed, Jamie Maclaren, Martin Boyle, Steven Whittaker and Daryl Horgan are all also doubtful.