Back in October, with Hibs sitting third in the cinch Premiership, Lee Johnson’s men made the same journey and were trounced 6-1, with a terrible first-half performance one of the main reasons. It led Johnson to publicly flog his players afterwards and question their mindset, saying in the immediate aftermath: “It must be a psychological factor because I see these boys sitting third or fourth or wherever we are. I see them in training, work on drills and they often execute things. It felt we were a boxer that didn’t want to throw a punch because we were worried about the counter punch which hurt me most.” He then spoke again a few days later and queried whether it was engrained in players to fear facing the Old Firm.
Hibs have had their peaks and troughs since then – Johnson was also quick to point the finger of blame at himself – but go back to Celtic Park lying fourth in the league, five points off third-placed Hearts. A seven-game unbeaten run came to a juddering halt earlier this month against Rangers, losing 4-1 at home, and Hibs have had more than a week to lick their wounds. With Celtic continuing their own rampant form, taking anything from the league leaders will be a very tall order, but Hibs assistant coach Jamie McAllister – standing in for Johnson this week for media duties – feels Hibs are in a much better place than they were six months ago.
Asked whether he concurred with Johnson that the team has matured and confidence has grown, McAllister nodded and revealed that use of a psychologist has helped. “I agree with the gaffer, it’s definitely grown since then,” said the Hibs No 2. “There’s belief in the squad, there’s a stronger mentality and that comes off the back of wins and a bit of psychology again. We’ve had Donald MacNaughton in as well, who is helping with the psychological side of it as well which is a big corner that needs improved. So we are in a better place than we were back then. But it comes down to when you step across that white line. Then you’ll see the mentality and belief.”
Hibs have opened up the opportunity for psychologist for the players all season and McAllister explained what sessions entail. “He does different things, we separate the groups, do it as a group or as individuals. It’s up to the lads if they want to take it or not. It’s definitely something the group has got better at. The mentality is there.”
As a players, especially with Aberdeen, McAllister took his fair share of beatings at Celtic Park, but he did taste success as a Hearts player back in 2005. “I can’t really recall as it was that long ago!” he laughed about what it takes to beat Celtic in their own backyard. “You need a bit of luck but it’s also also about mentality and belief and executing the game plan. You need them not to be at their best and we need every player at it. They have real quality and I think they average about three goals a game so it’s a tough ask but it’s one you have to set yourself up right, be strong at the back, be organised but be ready to counter and break and take your chances when they come.”