Gary Oliver is adamant Hibs will face a far more defiant Morton side at Fortress Cappielow on Saturday than the one that was steamrollered at Easter Road back in August.
The Championship leaders produced one of their strongest displays of the season as they romped to a 4-0 win at home to a side who were in the midst of a run of no wins from their opening five league matches.
Morton’s fortunes have changed significantly for the better in the intervening three and a half months, however. The Greenock side have won eight of their past 13 matches in all competitions and have hauled themselves up to fourth in the Championship on the back of a run in which they have taken 17 points from a possible 24.
Perhaps most crucially in relation to Saturday’s teatime encounter, Morton are unbeaten in their past 12 home fixtures in all competitions – a run stretching back almost nine months, to late March. Oliver, the former Hearts striker, is confident there will be no repeat of the late-summer capitulation at Easter Road in this weekend’s match, which will be live on BBC Alba.
“We’re playing the league leaders on the telly, under the floodlights, so it’s one of the bigger games in our season,” he told the Evening News. “The last one against Hibs was at the start of the season and we had a few new players still gelling and getting to know each other. I think we sat off them a bit too much and gave them a bit too much respect.
“We’re 100 per cent a better team than we were at the start of the season, as our results have shown. Hibs will definitely get a harder game this time. We’re unbeaten at Cappielow since March and we’re doing well there just now, so hopefully we can keep it going.”
Oliver has been making steady progress since leaving Hearts 15 months ago in search of regular first-team football. He scored seven goals in 16 starts for Queen of the South in the Championship last season, but by the end of the campaign, the Riccarton academy graduate was ready to move on again. “At Queens, I was in and out of the team and I wasn’t playing my proper position,” he explained. “They were using me out wide left or wide right. I can play there, but I prefer to play as a No.10 or a striker, and I wanted to play in my favoured position. I wanted to go to a team that wanted me as a player and could get the best out of me.”
A summer move to Morton has worked wonders for Oliver. The 21-year-old is one of only two players to have started all 24 of the Cappielow side’s competitive matches this season. His time in Greenock has brought five goals so far, but, more importantly, a sense of contentment that his career is now finally on the right track after a frustrating few years of trying to establish himself.
“It’s going brilliant for me – I’m enjoying it here,” he said. “I’ve been involved in every game since I signed, which is good for my experience. That’s all I wanted when I came here. I’ve scored a few goals and I’ve been playing my best football in some games. The gaffer said when I came that he’d play me in my right position and give me a run in the team, and he’s done that.”
“The gaffer” also happens to be his uncle, Jim Duffy. Oliver laughed off any sense of nepotism being at play. “It’s not really any different to playing under any other manager, to be honest,” he said. “I thought when I came here that it might be a bit different because he’s my uncle, but it’s not at all. I get my fair share of grief from him, don’t worry about that!”
Oliver still harbours hopes of climbing back up the career ladder and, in that regard, is encouraged by the interest being shown in his highly-rated young colleague, Jai Quitongo. “I was happy to hear people are watching Jai because that means people are coming to Morton games,” he said. “It’s good that he’s bringing eyes to the team because that means there’s a chance they’ll take note of some of the other boys as well.”
Although he remains hungry to reach the top, Oliver has proved with his decisions so far that playing regular first-team football is the priority in his thinking. After being pitched in for his Hearts debut as an 18-year-old in the relegation season under Gary Locke three years ago, he was knocking on the door a couple of times under Robbie Neilson, who genuinely rated him. In the end, however, Oliver felt he was unlikely to be given a proper opportunity to force himself ahead of more senior players like Osman Sow, James Keatings, Soufian El Hassnaoui, Genero Zeefuik, Gavin Reilly and Juanma Delgado in the battle for a starting place at Tynecastle. He left Hearts with 25 first-team appearances – six from the start – and two goals to his name.
“I was starting the odd cup game and getting ten minutes here and there as a sub, but I think a lot of it’s down to luck when you’re trying to get a break at a club like Hearts,” said Oliver. “They had about six strikers when I was trying to get in, and I was the youngest and most inexperienced. I was the top scorer in pre-season last season but I didn’t really get a sniff when the season started. I knew I was good enough to play at that level but it came to a point where I just thought ‘I need to go and get playing football’. Some boys might be happy to sit on the bench and say they’re playing for a big club, but I wanted to play regular football. I think leaving Hearts was the best thing I’ve done for my career. I’ve played a lot more games now than I would have at Hearts.
“I’m still young and learning the game but I’m ambitious to get back to the top level. The Premiership’s obviously a better league, but I’ve not noticed a massive difference in standards in terms of training and stuff like that at Morton. For me, it’s a case of dropping down to try and get back up eventually.”
Oliver could be crossing swords this weekend with another former Hearts striker who asked to leave Tynecastle in summer 2015 after finding himself marginalised. The aforementioned Keatings joined Hibs just before Oliver signed for Queens, and the two Glaswegians have remained close ever since. The Easter Road forward could return to the squad on Saturday after two months sidelined by a knee injury. “Me and Keats are really good mates,” said Oliver. “We clicked as soon as we met each other at Hearts a couple of years ago and we’ve stayed in touch since then. He’s had a few injuries that have knocked him back a bit but he’s a really good player who’ll help Hibs when he’s fit.
“He was unlucky at Hearts as well because he came straight in and scored double figures in his first season, but didn’t really get much of a chance after that. When you’re up against guys like Osman Sow, it’s hard to knock them out the team. Hibs have got a lot of good strikers as well, but Keats is definitely good enough to play there, so hopefully he gets back in quickly.”