Tam McManus believes Hibs are about to leave the rest of the Championship trailing in their wake after Neil Lennon’s side opened up an eight-point gap at the top of the table.
The Easter Road outfit clocked up their fourth successive league win against Queen of the South and former striker McManus admitted he can now see them turn the screw, just as Rangers did this time last year when they wrapped up the title with an 11-match unbeaten burst which took them clear of the chasing pack.
Regarded as red-hot favourites following an impressive start to the season in which they won their opening five games, the Capital side then lost their way, not winning in their next four league games.
Their promotion credentials were questioned then and again at the end of the year as Dundee United, newly relegated and seen as Hibs biggest rivals, knocked them off top spot, Ray McKinnon’s side having overcome a troubled start to the season to embark on an impressive run of 14 matches unbeaten in all competitions.
United’s stay at the top, however, lasted only a week, the Tannadice side suffering a shock defeat at Dumbarton on a day Hibs beat Falkirk with a last-gasp thunderbolt from the on-loan Kris Commons.
Since then United have faltered, while Lennon’s players have come on strong with, in McManus’ estimation, their 3-0 demolition of the Tayside club in their first home game of 2017 sending out a message loud and clear to the rest of the league.
McManus said: “That was a massive result. United had been on a good run up to that point, had got close to and got in front of Hibs but they turned them over good and proper that night.
“It sent out a message not only to United but the other teams that they were ready to kick-on and they’ve done that in winning every game, while United have been dropping points to the extent that their second place is now under threat from Morton.”
While Capital neighbours Hearts have enjoyed a hectic transfer window, new boss Ian Cathro bringing in nine players, Hibs have been rather sedate, Lennon going into deadline day with only Chris Humphrey added to his squad.
But, insisted McManus, one of Lennon’s most shrewd moves could prove to be the 28-day emergency loan deal which brought Commons from Celtic to Hibs at a time when key midfielders John McGinn and Fraser Fyvie were out injured along with the versatile James Keatings.
“Commons is on a hefty wage at Celtic,” said McManus, “So I wouldn’t imagine it would have been cheap for Hibs to bring him in. But winning promotion will be worth a lot of money for the club.
“I know there were lot of clubs bleating about him being an emergency loan, but you can’t blame Hibs for taking advantage of the rules. Any club could have done the same.
“Commons might not have been fully fit during his spell at Easter Road, but he is a quality player and was a great signing for the Championship.
“And he did his job, those two late winners against Falkirk and Dumbarton earned Hibs six points rather than the two they might have got from those games so, in a short period of time, he played his part in opening up the gap Hibs now have.
“To be honest, I can see Hibs now winning the league quite comfortably. There’s no Hearts or Rangers this season and I think Hibs have really gone for it, they’ve been in this league far too long and can’t afford another year in it.”
The return to full fitness of McGinn, Fyvie and Keatings has given Lennon plenty of options, although the manager has insisted that, in his opinion, his squad is still a bit thin, but McManus believes that even without an increase in numbers his old club have enough in reserve to cope with the final 14 matches.
There is also, of course, the small matter of a Scottish Cup clash with Hearts at Tynecastle in a few days time but, insisted McManus, with that 114-year hoodoo well and truly smashed, Lennon and his players can focus purely on promotion although, naturally, they’ll want to enjoy another cup run.
Last season they also made it to the League Cup final but, believes McManus, that and the fact they had Scottish Cup replays against both Hearts and Inverness Caley eventually took its toll as far as their promotion bid faltered.
He said: “Hibs did have a big squad but they were playing Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday for a long period and that does take it’s toll.
“The fact they were chasing Rangers also put them under pressure, going into every game trying to claw their way back. Hearts in the cup is obviously a big match, neither side wants to lose that one, but for Hibs promotion has to be the be all and end all.”
If Hibs produced their best performance of the season in that early January mauling of United, their displays in winning against Dumbarton and Queens probably won’t live long in the memory, but they’ll count in the final reckoning every bit as much.
McManus said: “No-one remembers a scrappy 1-0 win on a day of foul weather, one dug out with a deflected shot. But they all count.
“Even when Hibs had that swashbuckling side with the likes of Franck Sauzee and Rusell Latapy they had to dig out results against the likes of Clydebank and Airdrie – they are the wins that get you promotion.”
The probability of centre back Paul Hanlon being absent for a spell should he, as expected, require an operation to cure his pelvic problem, is, McManus conceded, a big blow for Hibs but even so he believes they have a squad capable of coping.
He said: “They’ve got the tightest defence in the country, Darren McGregor has been immense at the back, a real no-nonsense defender. It would be disappointing to lose Hanlon but they do have Liam Fontaine and Jordon Forster and perhaps even Marvin Bartley could step back if required.
“Hibs are also so flexible, players capable of playing anywhere and in any system which makes them so unpredictable.”