Martin Boyle: Chasing pack won't give Hibs a free run
When it all kicked off away back in August the Championship was reckoned by many to be no more than a two-horse race, a straight fight between Hibs and Dundee United.
It was, perhaps, hard to argue with that prediction, the Capital club looking to win the title and with it the one automatic promotion place it carries at the third time of asking while United had been newly relegated from the Premiership.
What made it look all the more straightforward was the fact that this season, unlike the previous two, there wasn’t the complicating presence of either Hearts or Rangers.
And, in truth, things went pretty much to form, a few ups and downs certainly, but come the turn of the year the two favourites were neck-and-neck, United pitching up at Easter Road knowing victory would send them top of the table.
Neil Lennon’s players thought otherwise, demolishing the Tannadice outfit with a double from Jason Cummings and a solo effort from John McGinn to send them four points clear.
Even at that stage Morton and Falkirk were listed among the also-rans, the Cappielow side trailing the leaders by 14 points with the Bairns a point further adrift.
Today, however, the pair may still be in Hibs’ wake, but they are very much on their coat-tails with Falkirk six and Morton nine points in arrears and, with the season heading into the final straight, very much still liable to have a say in the final outcome.
United have been relegated to a distant fourth, ten points behind Lennon’s players, a scenario which underlines in no small way the significance of Friday night’s narrow win at Tannadice.
As Ray McKinnon, manager of the Tayside club, said afterwards, in essence all his players can now do is look to win as many of their ten remaining games as possible and see where that takes them.
Hibs forward Martin Boyle, however, isn’t prepared to write United off at least for the moment just as he insists he isn’t at all surprised to find both Falkirk and Morton still very much in the mix.
He said: “I think the way the table looks today underlines how massive our win the other night was. United were our nearest challengers at the time, we knew what we had to do and even if it was an ugly game we battled, came out victorious.”
Boyle’s use of the phrase “our nearest challengers at the time”, was telling, a recognition he admitted of the fact that in Falkirk and Morton there are most definitely others who fall into the category of contenders.
He said: “Just because we beat United doesn’t mean they are dead and buried. We still have a tough ask on our hands as others have crept up behind us.
“I think it was probably only natural that at the start of the season people talked of the title being between ourselves and United but as we’ve found out ourselves, this is a hard league to get out of.
“We’ve seen over the past couple of seasons that anyone is capable of beating anyone; find a bit of consistency and you can be right up there.
“Falkirk have been on a great run and Morton have a fantastic home record – unbeaten at Cappielow in almost a year – so it is no surprise to find decent teams like them holding their own.”
Morton travel to Falkirk this weekend, playing just after Hibs’ home match against Dumbarton ends for the benefit of television, fixtures which, Boyle admitted, offer the promise of further reward in shape of an extended lead over those two sides – both of whom Lennon’s players face immediately thereafter.
He said: “Something will have to give between Falkirk and Morton but we need to concentrate on ourselves, to make sure we take all three points again so we are in a position to take advantage of the outcome of that one.
“We’ve got Falkirk and them Morton up at home thereafter, tough games but if we can come through them unscathed then we’ll be in a good position.
“We’re at that stage of the season where no-one can afford to drop points, but equally it’s tough to win games. Teams are well-organised, they aren’t daft in this league, they make it hard whether it’s coming to Easter Road and camping in or at their own grounds.”
Having spent the past two seasons chasing Hearts and then Rangers, Boyle knows how dispiriting it can become, Falkirk boss Peter Houston admitting he’d far rather be in Hibs’ position at this moment than that his own club holds, leading the Hibs player to concede different pressures come to bear.
He said: “Any slip-up is more magnified at this stage of the season. When you are chasing even if you draw you are dropping points at a time when games are running out. There’s less and less scope to say ‘we’ll get it right next weekend’.
“It’s very tight between fourth and first but if we keep winning then the pressure falls on the others.”
Hibs, however, will find the squad stretched for the visits of both Dumbarton and Falkirk, Jason Cummings and Fraser Fyvie suspended this weekend while John McGinn and Ofir Marciano will be missing, away on international duty next week when Falkirk arrive.
But even at a time when Paul Hanlon, Liam Fontaine and Chris Humphrey are out injured, Boyle is confident Lennon’s players will cope.
He said: “You have to fight for your jersey here, take your chance when it arises.”