Steven Whittaker believes Hibs’ scrappy weekend victory over struggling Partick Thistle shows the Easter Road side can handle the pressure of the chase for second place in the Premiership table.
The 2-0 win pulled Neil Lennon’s players to only four points behind Rangers and Aberdeen and they have the chance to close that gap even further when they face Hamilton at home tonight while the Dons travel to face Motherwell.
And, with basement outfit Ross County to follow this weekend in the last round of fixtures before the split, Whittaker is well aware of the importance of winning these final two games, insisting that if Hibs do so then they’ll find themselves well positioned for the final straight.
The 33-year-old has been involved in many such pressure situations throughout his career, winning the League Cup as a youngster in Edinburgh and then being involved in plenty of title races and cup finals with Rangers, most notably the UEFA Cup showpiece against Zenit St Petersburg.
He’ll be able to bring such experience to bear in the coming weeks as will, as he pointed out, Easter Road boss Neil Lennon who has been over the same course many times in both his playing and managerial careers.
Whittaker said: “It’s a cliche, but you have to approach these games as you would any other. At the end of the day, we play 38 games and each point is as valuable as the next.
“Obviously when you are getting close to what you are trying to achieve the pressures are there, but you have to put that to the side and try to deal with the task in hand. People were probably expecting Rangers to be second while Aberdeen have been there the past few seasons. We are the new guys and whether that made people not expect us to finish second I don’t know. But we are here believing we can win our remaining games and get the points on the board that will hopefully push us up there.”
Whittaker feels he and his team-mates have perhaps been overlooked with some adamant the battle to finish “best of the rest” behind Celtic is solely between Rangers and Aberdeen but, he admitted, they still have some work to do to realise their goal.
He said: “You want to be ahead knowing it’s in your hands – that’s the position you want to be in. We are obviously sitting fourth, close to third and second, but we are still chasing so we need to keep picking up the points to climb a couple of places, hopefully.
“We’ve been fourth for a while, a bit under the radar, but we’ve clawed that gap back and, if we can win these next two games, we’ll be in a good position with all these teams to play after the split. We are all looking forward to it and to see how it unfolds.”
Whittaker admitted he didn’t quite know what to expect when he returned to Hibs from Norwich City in the summer, but was well aware the Capital club had a talented squad given they’d followed winning the Scottish Cup by taking the Championship title to clinch their return to the top flight.
He said: “We believed a club of Hibs’ stature should be towards the top end of the table so this squad has managed to bring that back to the club. The feelgood factor is here and we are just trying to roll with this momentum and hopefully we’ll have a successful end to the season.
“We’ve brought a level of consistency, possibly greater than ever. The manager has been there. He know how it feels to have that pressure on you when wins are demanded week in, week out and the players have responded well.
“We’ve got consistency in our results. On Saturday, we didn’t play particularly well but we won 2-0. It’s a good habit when you are not playing well to still get the three points.”
Not only are Hibs in with a shout of second place but a spot in next season’s Europa League beckons. Whittaker said: “It was something that was mentioned at the start of the season, were we going to get this club into the placings where we’d get European football? It would be a great achievement, we want to do it and we are on course to do it which is great.”