Pressure mounts and opportunity knocks as magnitude of Hibs v Aberdeen laid bare
Acknowledging the magnitude of the match, Hibs welcome Aberdeen to Easter Road on Saturday well aware that a win would allow them to put distance between themselves and a team they have been enjoying a nip-and-tuck battle with all season.
In the quest to achieve their pre-season target of third – and permit them to dream of going one better – the three points would be a major boost. But, no-one at the Leith club expects the game to be campaign-defining.
“I have said it is a massive game for us but, even if we win it is no guarantee that we will finish third and if we lose it is no guarantee that we won’t still finish third,” said Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano.
“We need to look at it as an individual game and try to do our best and try to get the three points. That would give us the platform to go into the next games with more confidence.”
Under the cosh
That self-belief took a bit of a kicking as 2020 turned into 2021 and the team endured their worst period of the season. Those who had already been calling for managerial change, unhappy with the style of football under Jack Ross or the team’s brittleness when it comes to big games, saw their opportunity to champion their cause and the cup losses to Hearts and then St Johnstone stoked the ill-will.
But, under-fire Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes arrives in the capital as a beacon of durability. He is also an example of how, in a game that runs on passions and dreams, fans will always grasp at more.
For several years the Pittodrie side, under his stewardship have been there or thereabouts; the best of the rest, as others yo-yoed up and down the standings and the leagues.
With Aberdeen the target many others aim at, the fact he has survived nearly eight years when the average managerial term can be measured more easily in months, demonstrates the attributes needed in modern management.
Hailing his counterpart’s “mental toughness and resilience” Ross, like every manager who has, at one time or another, seen their position questioned, understands what he is going through.
“It’s challenging to keep going when you are under pressure,” Ross said. “It’s draining but I think you need to have the strength of character to do it and do it for a significant period of time.”
Form speaks for itself
Team selection, player ups and downs and tactical rethinks are areas of the job managers can usually handle, but controlling perceptions and the mood of the mob are things they just have to weather. Understanding that is one thing but that doesn’t mean they won’t fight to change the narrative.
For all the disquiet about Hibs’ apparent inability to front up when it counts, having come through the early-year downturn, they have bounced back by amassing the Premiership’s second-best points return from their past five league games. With one defeat, to Rangers, on a night where they made life tough, and a draw with Celtic, they have claimed ten points from a possible 15, better than lauded in-form sides such as Livingston and St Mirren, better than the defending champions and double the amount amassed by today’s rivals.
That has allowed them to overhaul McInnes’ men and now that the music has stopped, it is the Aberdeen boss who is lugging the weight of fans’ disappointment around. That could all change again by the time the pause button is pressed this evening, though. While this match is worth three points, the same as any other, it has been bestowed greater credence by Hibs fans, who have been unhappy with their club’s recent record against the Pittodrie outfit.
Two wins in the past 14 head-to-heads is hard to explain when strong showings, wins and draws have featured more frequently against Celtic and Rangers.
‘Something of a myth’
Perhaps, the pressure is off against the Glasgow pair, whereas there is a greater expectation and therefore more to lose when they face Aberdeen. Which is where fans again question the strength of character and Hibs, having lost the first two meetings this term, need to find a way to grind out a result.
“I was in charge for one of those wins, so that’s not too bad,” reminded Ross, who oversaw the 3-0 win in 2019. “It’s a fair thing to point out, though, and it’s up to us to do something about it. Not just this season. We are trying to be a club that is up there consistently.
“There’s something of a myth about where this club has finished in the league over the years.
“But we need to have a better record against teams like Aberdeen. It’s something we can improve on. The record needs to be better. I hope that is the case starting this weekend.”
Every game that has been won has got Hibs to the position they are in, but the fact they are close enough to Aberdeen this term means the head-to-heads are proverbial six-pointers.
Players are relishing it
After the cup exits, fans do not want to see Hibs undermining their league season by missing out on achievable targets.
“We have had all these aims and ambitions for us so it's not that, all of a sudden, this game has brought a different prize for us,” said Ross. “In terms of the benefits of winning the game, it’s another three points and adds to our total to try to bring us success. But we’re also aware that we’re playing against a team we’ve traded places with a lot over the course of the season, that have consistently finished in that top three or four positions for a long time now and are always going to be one of, if not our biggest rivals to try and finish in that part of the table.
“So, the players know it’s a big game and I think they’re relishing that.”