Hib’s resurgence teases exciting sprint finish with Hearts

The Hibs exec firmly prevailed at the expense of co-star Jim Goodwin, and the sequel that follows seems written as a redemption story. Whether Johnson really came close to losing his job that day remains a matter of debate, but his team certainly wasn’t in a good place.

While they were unbeaten in the last two games before Goodwin’s disastrous Aberdeen, two painful defeats by Hearts – one in the Premier League, the other in the Scottish Cup – after a run of just two wins in 11 games was enough to hold their own the former Sunderland boss under significant pressure.

He certainly projected the image of a man feeling the strain: Public smacks against his players combined with subtle attacks on the board often don’t end well for managers. I myself wrote in January that Johnson and Hibs bore all the hallmarks of a doomed relationship and everyone at the club seemed fed up.

Johnson has never minced his tongue in front of the press and often comes across as refreshingly candid from a neutral perspective in an environment where many are working extraordinarily hard to remain vigilant. But such honesty doesn’t sit well with disgruntled fans – the right to speak your mind into the mic seems to be earned by presenting results on the pitch.

There was a clear sense of “talking is cheap” among Hibs fans, and they grew tired of listening to their manager. To be honest, I had become pretty certain that parting ways had become borderline inevitable.

But it seems I may have been wrong.

When Ryan Porteous left for Watford on January 27 – and Kevin Nisbet was seemingly destined to follow him out the door – the odds of Hibs turning the transfer window into a positive one felt pretty high. However, fate has conspired to keep Nisbet in Edinburgh and the late arrivals that have accompanied this unexpected development are looking increasingly positive.

New signings James Jeggo, CJ Egan-Riley and Matthew Hoppe were all involved in an impressive 4-1 away win at Livingston on Saturday that extended their unbeaten league run to seven games. Johnson’s side have won five of those and are now five points behind Hearts in third place.

Full-time celebrations at the Tony Macaroni Arena were passionate and no doubt fueled by the emotions of what has been an extremely difficult few weeks at Easter Road. Ron Gordon had made his battle with cancer public on February 3 and the sudden announcement of his tragic death just a fortnight later brought Scottish football to a halt.

However, tragedy has a way of promoting unity. Johnson specifically highlighted the “togetherness” from top to bottom as particularly satisfying in Livingston and dedicated the result to Gordon and his family. There are now signs that the late chairman’s determination not only to hold on to Johnson but to continue supporting him in the transfer market – despite rising results – could be paying off.

When Hibs suffered an alarming slump earlier in the season – losing seven of eight after winning four in a row – many of their underlying numbers pointed to a side that shouldn’t have fared so badly. The mere mention of such metrics is enough to get some bettors’ blood pressure pumping, but there must be a reason why clubs rely so heavily on advanced statistics these days.

CONTINUE READING: Livingston 1 Hibernian 4 – Immediate response to the burning issues

Without diving into too many boring details, these numbers suggest Hibs weren’t as bad as the results would suggest. And now, with a little patience and a few smart signings, that might just play out on the pitch.

With 11 games remaining, it’s certainly not out of the question that they could be chasing Hearts in third place. The coming week certainly feels crucial. Hibs will host Rangers at Easter Road on Wednesday while Hearts head down the M8 to Celtic Park.

Johnson has undoubtedly sparked a revival in recent weeks, but it could take a statement result to confirm Hibs are truly on the rise under his leadership. Rangers’ league results have been impressively consistent with Michael Beale in charge, but their performances have been unspectacular throughout.

If there was ever a time for Hibs to surprise against either of the Glasgow greats, it is now. Hearts themselves remain in fine form, but it’s not easy for Robbie Neilson and his players to predict that taking something from an imperious Celtic at Parkhead could be too much for them – especially with a Cup quarter-final that days must be considered later.

If the results head towards Hibs midweek, we’d quickly move from the possibility of a race for third place in the capital to a tantalizing reality. Considering where they were at the turn of the year it’s quite a turnaround, and doubly so considering a meltdown at Tynecastle didn’t help them much.

CONTINUE READING: Lee Johnson targets European football with Hibs after beating Livi

Hearts’ form has worn a whiff of inconsistency since February, but a routine win over St Johnstone on Saturday suggests there is no immediate cause for concern, at least as far as their own results are concerned. However, you will see progress from your neighbors.

That progression may only cause tension for Gorgie, but for us neutral observers, the prospect of Hearts and Hibs battling for the Europa League qualifying spot is exciting. The race for the title is realistically over – but the real excitement in the Premiership is often found with the Glasgow bubble anyway.

It looked utterly unlikely for much of the season, but Hibs and Hearts might just treat us to a classic sprint to the finish line.

https://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/23364416.hibs-resurgence-teases-thrilling-sprint-finish-hearts/?ref=rss Hib’s resurgence teases exciting sprint finish with Hearts

Russell Falcon

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