Niklas Gunnarsson believes Hibs have Premiership credentials

Niklas Gunnarsson wasnt worried as Inverness pushed five men forward to try and force extra time
Niklas Gunnarsson wasnt worried as Inverness pushed five men forward to try and force extra time
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Niklas Gunnarsson has only been at Easter Road for three short months but the Norwegian defender has seen enough to be convinced that Hibs are a Premiership team in all but name.

Eight times Alan Stubbs’ side have gone head-to-head with opposition from the top flight and have emerged with a highly-impressive record of won five, drawn two and lost just one.

The latest scalp was that of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, their grip on the Scottish Cup they won last season lost as Hibs travelled up the A9 to deliver the perfect answer to those claiming their season was about to unravel following Sunday’s defeat by Ross County in the final of the League Cup.

But, as far as Norwegian defender Gunnarsson was concerned, the “bottle” of his team-mates was never in question.

“In football or any other sport there are people who want to see you fail,” he reasoned, “That’s normal, that’s the way it is.

“But we showed good character. Every game is different, a new picture. Sometimes you can be the much better team but not get the result.

“The cup final was a big disappointment, we wanted to perform not only for our fans but ourselves. With 30,000 of them going to Hampden we wanted to show them we had done every thing.

“We lost and of course it affects us as a team because we were playing for them but after the game there was nothing we could do but focus on Inverness.”

The long trip north capped a period of ten days which Gunnarsson, on loan from Tippeligaen outfit Valeranga until the end of the season, admitted he had never experienced in his career.

He said: “A quarter-final, a final and then a quarter-final replay, it was incredible.

“But that’s what it is all about for good teams, you play in a lot of different tournaments which is good.

“The gaffer has said many times we will have a great season, we’ve never given up and now we’ are going to be at Hampden again and we’ll beat Dundee United.”

And Gunnarsson believes the way in which Hibs held off a ferocious second-half onslaught from a Caley outfit determined not to relinquish their grip on the trophy said much more about the Edinburgh club’s character than the actual result itself.

Comfortably ahead thanks to two goals from Anthony Stokes – the Republic of Ireland striker breaking a seven-match drought to score twice in just four first half minute – life became a little more fraught as Inverness pulled one back through Iain Vigurs 13 minutes from the end.

Two minutes later Gunnarsson was pitched into action, replacing forward James Keatings to help shore up a defence under pressure as Caley, with eight players more than six feet tall in their starting line-up, began to bombard the penalty area with high balls.

And the sight of goalkeeper Mark Oxley trooping off, his vision seriously impaired having lost a contact lens, to be replaced by Otso Virtanen, a nerve-wracking debut for the Finnish star, didn’t help the already shredded nerves of the travelling support – nor did seeing fourth official Nick Walsh raise his board to indicate an astonishing seven minutes of added-on time.

Gunnarsson, however, insisted he wasn’t fazed at all by such a drama-laden finale to the match.

He said: “I want to play as much as I can and I knew if we were going to go into extra time we would win it because we had more quality than Inverness.

“I knew it was going to be tough but that’s every game whether you win or lose. They had thrown five players up front so we knew they were going to try to put us under pressure with long balls.

“But as they pushed forward we also had three amazing chances to make it 3-1. We have the quality, so I wasn’t worried.”

After all the drama of the cups, it’s back to the bread and butter of Championship football tomorrow and back to where Gunnarsson’s Hibs career began, the 24-year-old having made a shock debut against Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park only days after signing.

January 9 marked the start of what, so far, has been a successful Scottish Cup campaign, Raith beaten that day by Darren McGregor’s first goal for the club – Hibs’ 1000th in the competition – and what proved to be Dominique Malonga’s last strike before returning to pursue his career in Italy.

Ironically, McGregor had replaced Gunnarsson just seven minutes earlier, the new boy having visibly tired, as he readily admits.

He said: “It was a surprise to be playing that day. I had not played football for a long while so it was tough for me and after 50 minutes my body was tired.

“Training fit is one thing, match fit is another. Sometimes players coming to a new club try to do too much in the beginning. My friend Henri [Anier] was injured after one or two days and was out for two or three months.

“But I have been fit, I have participated in every training session since I have been here which is good, it shows I have looked after my body with the help of the club’s medical team.

“In my first game I just wanted to make simple passes, to keep it easy but after some matches you want to try things.

“However, I always want to play easy football, I am not the type of player who wants to dribble two or three players. It’s about knowing your role within the team.

“I’ve been here three months but the time has flown and there have been a lot of good experiences so far.”

Gunnarsson admitted, though, that promotion would top the lot. “That’s always been our main goal because we are too good a team to be playing in the Championship.

“We’ve played a lot of Premiership teams and lost only one which is good form but we have to make sure in the coming games we win promotion.

“We have the team, Easter Road is one of the top three or four grounds in Scotland, we have a fantastic training centre. The foundations are definitely there – but the hard part is getting there.”