At this time last year, the wheels were about to come off Hibs’ Championship title bid. John Doolan anticipates no repeat this time round and is adamant that his old team will be starting next season in the Premiership.
The Liverpudlian was first-team coach under Alan Stubbs at this point a year ago as the Easter Road side were coming towards the end of a 28-game run in which they would lose only one game in all competitions. At the onset of February, hopes were high that they could reel in a stuttering Rangers side who sat just five points above them having played a game more.
A goalless draw at Livingston on February 13, however, allowed the Ibrox side to seize command of the title race, and although Hibs won their next two games – at home to Hearts in the Scottish Cup replay and Alloa Athletic in the league – they were soon to lose their way completely as competing for two cups took a toll on their promotion push. A 3-0 defeat at home to Morton in late February sparked a remarkable run in which they lost four league games in a row and won only once in eight as they ended up finishing in third place and subsequently losing to Falkirk in the play-offs.
Currently six points clear of faltering Dundee United, and with a game in hand, Doolan expects the side he left behind last summer to capitalise on their position of strength by seeing out the title with minimum fuss over the next two and a half months.
“They’re sitting pretty at the minute,” he told the Evening News. “You’d rather be sitting on top and have teams chasing you. Everyone starts to look seriously at the table around Christmas, but here we are in February and they’re in a very good position. It’s in their own hands and I’m sure they’ll get it done.
“It’s always nice to have teams chasing you but when you’re chasing, there’s pressure on every game to make sure you don’t slip up. That means when you do have a setback, like we did, it can knock you out of your stride. Sitting top of the league with points in the bag is totally different to having games and being the chasing side.”
Doolan has no worries about the current Hibs squad losing their nerve at the business end of the campaign. “I think what happened last year will stand them in good stead,” he said.
“They all know their job is to get Hibs out of that league, and with two years’ experience of it, and all the cup runs, and winning the Scottish Cup, I think they’ll get it done. Look at the characters in that dressing-room. They’re not going to crumble, no chance. The fact the majority of them have won silverware recently means they won’t be intimidated when the finishing line comes into view.
“Even last season, although we had our knocks, we always picked ourselves up, whether it was going out and winning the replay at Inverness just days after losing the League Cup Final or winning the Scottish Cup a week after losing to Falkirk in the play-offs. You get tested all the time in the football, but the experiences that group have had will stand them in good stead.”
At this point last year, Hibs were still prominently involved in three competitions. This season, they have only two to contend with, but there is no escaping the fact the fact the Scottish Cup replay against Hearts on Wednesday is looming large even though their next fixture is Saturday’s Championship trip to Raith Rovers, who will be under the charge of former Hibs boss John Hughes for the first time. Doolan has no concerns about the ability of Neil Lennon’s side to keep their eye on the most important prize this time round.
“The two cup runs took their toll on our league campaign last year because the games were coming thick and fast,” said Doolan. “Unlike last year, they’ve only got the Scottish Cup running alongside the league this time. There’ll be less pressure on them to win the Scottish Cup since we got the monkey off the club’s back last year, so it should be easier to stay focused on the bread and butter of the league.
“Raith away is their next game and that’s their most important game. It’s a massive game. John Hughes has been up and down the leagues and has won the Scottish Cup himself so his team will make it a hard game, but there’s enough in the Hibs team to go and get the job done. Once they’ve done that then they can turn their attention to going out and enjoying the replay.”