Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom accuses Tommy Wright of ‘deflection’ following Flo Kamberi blast as he prepares to welcome Neil Lennon’s Celtic to Easter Road

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HIBERNIAN head coach Paul Heckingbottom has hit back following Tommy Wright’s stinging criticism of Flo Kamberi, insisting the St Johnstone boss is using the referee as a scapegoat.

Furious Wright accused the Swiss front-man of ‘conning’ official Gavin Duncan as he plunged the turf under a challenge from Liam Craig, adding that he felt ‘embarrassed’ for the player.

Marc McNulty slotted home the resulting spot-kick as Hibs, down to 10-men after Vykintas Slivka was dismissed, came from behind to secure a 2-1 victory on Wednesday night.

And Heckingbottom has passionately gone to bat for his star striker, claiming there was sufficient contact to award a penalty and suggesting Wright look at the actions of his own player rather than blaming the whistler.

He said: “There’s contact there and it’s up to the ref to give it. That’s a thing I’ve notice up here in Scotland – the referees get a hell of a hammering, with a lot of people deflecting things.

“I could sit here and moan about decisions that didn’t go my way in that game.

“Of course it’s disappointing to hear those comments, but it happens. It’ll worry me if refs get influenced by it, which I suppose is what people’s intentions are.

“Regardless of what decisions they make – good or bad, whether I agree with them or not – they’re honest and they’re trying their best and that’s all they can do.

“In regard to that particular incident, there’s contact. If it’s outside the box would it be a free-kick? Yeah, it probably would, so why would it be any different inside the box?

“I’d be looking at my defenders asking why he’s going to tackle someone on the byline facing away from goal. That’s the first thing I’d be asking.”

It was no surprise to see Kamberi at the centre of attention, having been a significant figure – for better or worse – all season for Hibs.

(Pic: Hibernian FC)

He has scored two goals in Heckingbottom’s three games at the helm and has looked reborn alongside McNulty after seeming a shell of his former self during the latter days of the Neil Lennon era at Easter Road.

There will be few players more keen to prove a point when Lennon returns to Leith with his Celtic side on Saturday.

Heckingbottom continued: “Flo has done well. I’ve been really pleased with him and Sparky [McNulty] up top.

“We’re not going to buy a finished article here. What we can do is: buy players who fit in to to the squad dynamic and be developed further. I’m sure that was the intention when Flo was brought in and I see no reason why that can’t be the case.

“Athletically he’s good enough, he’s got the physique and he’s got the pace, which you need to go on to another level.”

Heckingbottom readily accepts that the return of Lennon will provide a tantalising sideshow to an already mouth-watering Scottish Cup quarter-final at Easter Road and he is happy to embrace the scale of the occasion.

However, he is determined to ensure the focus of a squad assembled by – and, until a month ago, managed by – Lennon does not waver.

He added: “I’m hoping it [return of Lennon] makes for a better occasion and a better event. It’s a big enough game as it is. A Scottish Cup quarter-final, the champions coming, the previous manager. It’s all getting built up and I hope the game matches that build-up.

“From what I’ve seen in the media up here, Neil coming back probably will distract from the game! But not for us, within our dressing room. It’s a game of football against the best team in the land and we are going to give it everything to try to win it.

“As you get older, you learn to use things rather than let them hinder you. We all know what’s at stake, reaching the semi-final as we try to win that trophy. That’s what our focus is rather than anything else.”

And Heckingbottom even reckons some of his stars will be spurred on to get one over their ex-gaffer, adding: “That’s natural, whether it is players going back to previous clubs, playing against previous managers or against former team-mates

“There is a subconscious element to that. Regardless of the players sitting here saying ‘it’s no different’, there is something different.”

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