An intense and potentially campaign-defining month beckons for a Hibs side desperately seeking some momentum.
Their season thus far can be simply encapsulated by the phrase “stop-start”, both in terms of their form and their fixture schedule. Through October and November combined, Hibs have played only six league matches, and haven’t won any of their past five.
Against this backdrop, they are about to embark on a run of eight matches in the month of December. From famine to festive feast, in terms of fixtures, perhaps. But the key factor for consideration in the upcoming month is whether their points accumulation increases to a level that allows Hibs to finish 2018 higher in the Premiership than seventh, where they currently find themselves after 13 games.
While the prospect of eight games in just 29 days looks gruelling on paper, the hope within the camp is that this regular flow of fixtures will allow them to find themselves some belated harmony. “You’d rather be playing games than not,” said attacker Martin Boyle. “It’s been stop-start, stop-start so far, but now we’ve got a run of games, so this is the time to knuckle down.”
Hibs have had four free weekends since the campaign started, three due to international breaks and one due to the fact their home match against Rangers last month clashed with the Ibrox side’s Betfred Cup semi-final and had to be rescheduled. That match at Easter Road will now take place on Wednesday December 19, which means Hibs will be playing on every weekend and midweek for the remainder of the calendar year.
Boyle, who has remained active during recent international breaks due to his involvement with Australia, is relishing the busy period. “Being away on international duty was good for me but when I wasn’t away before that, it can be infuriating not having a game at club level during international breaks,” he said. “Sometimes the break comes at a good time, sometimes it comes at a bad time, but it’s been very stop-start for us this season and it’s not been ideal.”
A heavy fixture load through December is not unique to Hibs, with every club in Scotland’s Premiership having to cram in more games than normal before the winter break.
The level of challenge facing Neil Lennon’s team is slightly exacerbated, however, by the calibre of opposition they must face. Among their impending eight games are four Category A fixtures against the division’s top three teams – Celtic at home, Rangers home and away, and Hearts at home. Although Hibs’ form has been underwhelming thus far this season, they have developed a knack in recent years of producing their best in such high-profile fixtures.
Albeit with different personnel this term, some of whom are yet to ignite in a green-and-white shirt, there is enough relatively recent evidence to suggest that Hibs have it within their capabilities to take a reasonable share of points from the top three - particularly given that three of them are at Easter Road.
Boyle, who has been one of the players who has most helped Hibs get on the front foot in previous matches against the other leading teams in the division, is certainly not fazed by the challenge facing his side over the next month.
“These are the games you want to be playing in,” he said. “It doesn’t come much harder but this is why we’re in the top division. If we want to be challenging, we need to be competing in these games.”
Outwith those blockbuster fixtures against the top three, things are not exactly straightforward for Hibs. Their epic December series kicks off with a trip to Rugby Park this Saturday to face a Kilmarnock who don’t give much away at home under manager Steve Clarke.
Hibs can take some heart from the fact they have been one of the few teams who have found a way to deal with the new-and-improved Ayrshire side over the past year, but winning will be a tall order in light of the two teams’ recent fortunes. In addition, there are a couple of home fixtures against St Mirren and Livingston, as well as a trip to Hamilton Accies.
All three of those matches, against clubs beneath them in the table, offer clear opportunities to collect points, although last weekend’s home draw with bottom-of-the-table Dundee, after being 2-0 up, proves that nothing can be taken for granted by Hibs at present. They haven’t won in five matches since hitting second place in the table on the back of a four-game autumnal winning streak.
With optimism levels having waned as they have slipped into the bottom six over the past month or so, the Hibs supporters are in desperate need of a winter pick-me-up.
“It’s very important to get back on track,” said Boyle. “I wouldn’t say it’s a major crisis. We’re still a few points from being up there but it’s not like we’ve had five poor performances. We’ve had one or two bad performances in this run but we’ve been creating chances. Our downfall has been that we haven’t been clinical enough. But I’m sure everything will start to click in the next few weeks because we’ve got a good run of fixtures, and that’s what we want.”
HIBS’ DECEMBER SCHEDULE
Fixtures: Saturday, December 1: Kilmarnock v Hibs
Wednesday, December 5: Hibs v St Mirren
Saturday, December 8: Hamilton v Hibs
Sunday, December 16: Hibs v Celtic
Wednesday, December 19: Hibs v Rangers
Saturday, December 22: Hibs v Livingston
Wednesday, December 26: Rangers v Hibs
Saturday, December 29: Hibs v Hearts