THE similarities could offer Alan Stubbs some comfort. A repeat of the feats he once experienced with a Bolton Wanderers squad, which reminds him of his current group of players at Hibs, would see his primary objective for the season achieved. But with even more still on offer, he isn’t ready to settle.
In 1995, he was captain of the English First Division side as they worked their way into the League Cup final and progressed through the promotion play-offs. They earned a return to the top tier but were unable to secure silverware, their underdog status eventually catching up with them in the cup final against Liverpool.
“The cup game, we weren’t favourites,” recalled Stubbs. “There wasn’t any pressure on us whatsoever. But there are similarities to this team. We had a lot of young players with a lot of talk around them, and a bit of experience too. We also had a bit of joy against Premiership teams and on the day we weren’t a million miles away from beating Liverpool. That gave us a bit of impetus to go on and make sure that we got our main priority, which was promotion.”
They achieved that by beating Reading 4-3 in the play-off final at Wembley and while Stubbs would accept any route back to the Premiership in Scotland this term, he would still prefer to win the Championship and sidestep the do-or-die head-to-heads. Eight points behind leaders Rangers, with a game in hand, they can test the Ibrox side’s mettle today. With their match at home to Alloa kicking off at lunchtime, Hibs have the chance to get three points and pile pressure on their main title rivals, who play Queen of the South at Palmerston Park a few hours later.
Stubbs said: “We are getting towards that stage where we have to step up to the plate. We have done a lot of the groundwork and now it’s a little bit like we are making the garden look attractive. We have put all the hard work in, we just need to see the season out.”
Stubbs would also like to make Hibs’ eye-catching runs in the League and Scottish Cup count for something more than plaudits. He said: “Sometimes, when you’re young, you don’t fear anything. I don’t think there is any self-doubt. You can be quite brash when you are young – you take everything on the chin and keep moving forward. It’s only when you become an older, more experienced player that you sometimes think about it.
“Looking back, nothing fazed me, no matter how big it was, and I get that same impression from some of the young players here. We’ve got a three-week block now where it’s vital. We go Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday, potentially Sunday and the following weekend is the League Cup final. It’s a busy schedule but it’s a very important schedule.”
Fighting on three fronts has kept the excitement simmering for Hibs, with every game meaningful as the season reaches its denouement, but it has also placed a mental and physical burden on the team.
Stubbs said: “It doesn’t just happen because you’re young – you need to be able to back it up with a talent and an ability and I think they’ve got that blend.
“They go from game to game and look like they enjoy playing football, which is really important. If they have a bump they are keeping it to themselves because they don’t want to be out of the team and miss a game. They know how important the games coming up are.”
That is epitomised by the captain, David Gray, said Stubbs, and is another similarity with the Bolton squad, which, like Stubbs’ Hibs team, comprised mainly tough and driven homegrown players, with a sprinkling of Scandinavian individuals “which is as close as you can get to a British mentality” and included the likes of Mixu Paatelainen, Alan Thompson, John McGinlay and Owen Coyle.
Nothing has been achieved yet, but the fact that Hibs are on the cusp of something means that the players are not the only ones under the microscope and being touted for bigger and better things.
Twenty-one years ago, Bolton manager Bruce Rioch was rewarded for his success with a move to Arsenal and Stubbs is aware that he too is being linked with a step up.
He admitted: “Yeah – I’m not going to turn round and say no, I’m not. But it’s all about the players, it has to be, because as manager you’re only as good as the players you have and we’ve been fortunate that I’ve been backed fantastically well to bring in players I felt would be a good fit for the club.
“I’m sure there will be [chairmen looking to see how he finishes the season] but the most important thing is I’m really enjoying what I’m doing, and that means a lot to me. If that happens one day, then it’s not as if I have to rush into things. I can pick and choose and be comfortable about what my next career move will be somewhere along the line.”