Ofir Marciano: Hibs must make fans proud in final game of season
The warning signs had been there all week, and the “rubbish” performance Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom witnessed at Rugby Park probably didn’t come as any surprise following the disappointment of failing in their bid to reach Europe.
It all came down to a battle of minds more than anything else, Kilmarnock focused on clinching third place in the Ladbrokes Premiership and the automatic Europa League spot it carries, with Hibs still thinking of what might have been.
And it showed, Killie the more eager, displaying a greater desire and, ultimately, getting what they deserved albeit through a contentious penalty decision, referee Andrew Dallas deeming Hibs skipper David Gray guilty of an illegal pull on Alex Bruce.
It was the sort of incident you’ll see a dozen times in a game as players jostle as they await the delivery of a free-kick or corner, the kind that are rarely punished. But not on this occasion.
All agreed it fitted neatly into the “soft” category, one tucked away by striker Eamonn Brophy to leave Killie ahead of Aberdeen on goal difference with only Sunday’s final round of fixtures to come.
As chance would have it, that will see Aberdeen head for Easter Road, leaving Heckingbottom with the same headache this week, how to conjure up one final display to match those that brought that run of ten matches unbeaten, although that statistic has suddenly become no wins in four.
However, no matter the outcome, goalkeeper Ofir Marciano was adamant the 1510 Hibs supporters who travelled to Ayrshire – and those who will pack Easter Road to bid farewell to a number of players – deserve better.
“It doesn’t matter if we are chasing Europe or not,” insisted the Israeli internationalist. “We always have something to play for. I think that we know that we could do better, regardless of the result. We can perform better, and everyone knows it.
“We can’t let ourselves be flat like this. We know we could have played better. But Kilmarnock played really well and they made us look bad. They are a hard team to play against. So you have to give the credit to them.
“It doesn’t matter if we have the chance to go to Europe or not, we play for ourselves and we try to do the best that we can. We are professional football players. We represent a massive club with a lot of fans, so it is important for us they can come to our last game of the season next week and enjoy it and feel proud of us.”
Although, in theory, city rivals Hearts could still catch Heckingbottom’s side, the huge goals difference in their favour means fifth place is secure, a finish which, argued Marciano, was decent enough for a team which, when the new head coach took over from Neil Lennon, was sitting in eighth with the top six seemingly out of reach.
But, he claimed, the target for next season has already been set, to be in the top four or above.
He said: “I think, with the size of this club, we always need to be in the top four. But this season so many things have happened that – I won’t say we can be happy – but maybe we need to be realistic.
“I think we have done really well in the last three months to get to the place that we are in now.”
Heckingbottom admitted the match, at least as far as his side were concerned, was a typical end-of-season performance, one which had left him disappointed in his players for the first time.
He said: We’re not going to rely on refs to win the game. It’s down to us – we were rubbish, that’s why we didn’t win.
“You get too many at this time of the year – teams with nothing to play for against a hungry team. You want to be the one who controls that and puts in a performance rather than what was a typical end-of-season performance.
“It’s the first time I’ve been disappointed. There had been a lot expecting that result because of the stage of the season – and that’s what it was.
“We’ve had a week when we’ve had conversations and there are reasons for it but you still want to put in performances. The players are as disappointed as I am.”
As comfortable as Killie had been, their manager Steve Clarke admitted he endured a stressful final ten minutes having failed to finish Hibs off, Brophy having put one wide when left with only Marciano to beat.
But, he insisted, his players won’t feel the pressure of trying to secure third place in their final match against Rangers, saying: “If we match Aberdeen’s result it would give us third, which would be tremendous. We have already achieved this season. So we go into next week with no pressure and try to finish the job the supporters want us to finish.”