Paul Heckingbottom has admitted to a sense of frustration having to work with a threadbare squad with six players sidelined by injury as he seeks the “drive and intensity” which will keep Hibs in the Ladbrokes Premiership’s top six.
The new Hibs boss fielded the same starting line-up in each of his first three matches, victories over Hamilton, Dundee and St Johnstone tempered by the disappointment of going out of the Scottish Cup, beaten at home by Celtic.
He made his first change in that match, on-loan Genoa midfielder Stephane Omeonga replacing Stevie Mallan, and he’ll be forced to make another switch for tonight’s league clash with Rangers given Vykintas Slivka is suspended after being sent off at McDiarmid Park.
But with Martin Boyle and Ryan Porteous out for the season with knee injuries, and Ryan Gauld, Steven Whittaker, Thomas Agyepong and Adam Bogdan also sidelined at present, Heckingbottom admitted his options are strictly limited as he attempts the delicate task of keeping his players fresh while looking for optimum performance in each match.
“Of course you want as many options as possible,” he said, “And the best players. But we haven’t, so that’s it. We are limited in terms of personnel, we can’t change without significantly weakening the team.
“What is does mean we are getting a lot of work with a core group of players who are getting the opportunity to keep performing well and make it difficult for others to get back into the team.
“That’s the way I’ll always look at it. Even going forward I wouldn’t want to carry a massive squad. We want a squad that is robust enough to keep fit, to have competition for places but also a squad where everybody knows they have a chance of playing, when someone is injured or suspended, it’s the next one in and if they play well they’ll keep their place.”
Heckingbottom conceded a shortage of first-team regulars isn’t something Steven Gerrard will have to contend with – not that he expects the Rangers manager to make many changes to his team tonight.
He said: “Rangers have been good, they’ve hit form and are scoring goals, I cannot imagine Steven will change too much but he has that capacity if he wants with the squad he has, competition for each position.”
Heckingbottom insisted his team, with those three league wins, have “earned the right to be in the driving seat” in terms of now being in sixth place, three points clear of St Johnstone whom they leapfrogged with that win in Perth.
But he warned: “That’s the sort of intensity and drive we want between now and the end of the season. Whoever gets in that top six will deserve it – and we want to make sure it is us.”