Stevie Mallan confident Hibs can defy odds and claim a Europa League spot
Stevie Mallan says it’s going to take a “momentous” effort if Hibs are to defy the odds and claim a place in next season’s Europa League – but he insisted he and his team-mates are capable of doing so.
They go into the final five matches of the season trailing both Kilmarnock and Aberdeen by six points, making them outsiders in that particular race.
But having dumbfounded those who’d written them off following an alarming dip mid-season, by not only claiming a finish in the top six but in leapfrogging city rivals Hearts and into fifth ahead of the split, Mallan firmly believes Hibs can pull off another shock.
The midfielder, however, admitted it’s crucial Hibs, unbeaten in eight league games under their new head coach and with 20 points from a possible 24 under their belts, maintain that momentum when they face Celtic at home tomorrow.
“It’s a different bit of pressure to be honest,” said Mallan of the challenge ahead. “When we had that dip in form the pressure was, make that top six. That was the emphasis from the manager coming in and even amongst us, and we’ve done that.
“It’s a credit to the squad, we’ve had a big change and dealt with it really well. Everyone is wanting that top four spot and I want to be playing against the best in my career.
“I don’t see why we can’t get into the top four. It is going to be tough, but a lot of people wrote us off getting the top six and maybe we can shut a few more people up.
“We’re still six points away with five to play and if we do make that top four, it’s going to be a momentous task from the full squad. Playing against the best teams makes it harder, but the belief is there with the run we’ve been on just now.”
Celtic enjoyed a 2-0 win the Scottish Cup as former head coach Neil Lennon returned to Easter Road following his shock – and unexplained – departure but Mallan claimed Heckingbottom’s players should look back beyond that day and recall how they defeated the Hoops at home in the league a couple of months earlier.
“I think we were a bit disappointed with the cup game, especially with it being at home. But the last time we played them at home in the league we won and it was a really good performance.
“If we can replicate that tomorrow I think we can do well, they boys are high in belief. A win against Celtic would encourage the boys even more.
“Hopefully we can start on a high, we don’t want to lose the game as we want tot be in that top three or four.”
And while former Hibs midfielder Scott Brown may have run the show last time round – the ex-Scotland skipper scoring the second goal to clinch the win following James Forrest’s opener – Mallan is relishing the challenge of facing him again.
“He’s the type of player you want to come up against, Celtic captain and Scotland captain for many years. He is one of the top players in the country and that’s the battles you want to have as a midfielder, you want to test yourself against the best.
“I relish these days, Celtic, Rangers. You want to show what you can do and this is the stage because it’s where you get the most coverage, everyone is watching and people might realise you are a good player because you are up against good players.
“That’s when you want to stand out more and I’m looking forward to it.”
Celtic could wrap up their eighth successive title depending on how Old Firm rivals Rangers fare against Hearts at Tynecastle today and Heckingbottom admitted he’d hate to be standing on the fringes watching their celebrations should that turn out to be the case.
As Barnsley manager Heckingbottom took his team to St James’ Park on the final day of the season two years ago and was forced to look on as Newcastle United took the Championship title in dramatic fashion.
Although the Magpies defeated his team 3-0 on the day, it took a last-minute equaliser from Jack Grealish for Aston Villa to prevent Brighton from being crowned champions.
Heckingbottom recalled: “It was strange, we’d had a good season but we weren’t playing for anything by that point so you almost feel as if you are making the numbers up.
“It’s different if you are still playing for something but they went two up early on. I’d have walked on myself and given them the trophy just to get off the pitch. You can imagine the atmosphere, but we weren’t involved, there was nothing for us.”
Heckingbottom revealed he’d “hate it” if such a moment were to happen again tomorrow, but insisted his players must concentrate solely on keeping their European hopes alive.
He said: “They have earned the right to be in that position, but we are chasing our own things and from our position we want to do our job for ourselves.”