Shoot-out time for Peter Houston and Alan Stubbs

Falkirk manager Peter Houston goes  head to head with Hibs counterpart Alan Stubbs tonight. Picture: Michael Gillen
Falkirk manager Peter Houston goes head to head with Hibs counterpart Alan Stubbs tonight. Picture: Michael Gillen
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It could be the tagline to a modern-day western. They both want the same thing, but only one can have it.

Hibs manager Alan Stubbs was the one who provided this portentous slogan yesterday to express what is at stake this week. With the sun beating down mercilessly outside the Hibs training base, it was possible to imagine being on a film set somewhere like Monument Valley, Utah.

There in the middle of a dusty street, into which the customers of a nearby saloon have spilled to see what all the fuss is about, Stubbs is eyeballing Peter Houston, the Falkirk manager. Both are chewing on cheroots. Whatever quarrels they have had in the past, the time for one final reckoning is upon us.

Cut back to the real world, Stubbs is explaining why the Premiership semi-final play-off tie means these two exceptionally competitive figures are back in an old routine of needling each other. They go toe to toe again tonight at Easter Road in the first of two scheduled duels this week.

“He wants what I want and I want what he wants,” said Stubbs. “We both want the same thing. Unfortunately, there is always going to be one who misses out. I do not want that to be me.”

As much as it has been hard to prise the teams apart this season, there really must be only one winner come Friday evening, after the second leg has been played at the Falkirk stadium. Three of their four meetings this season have ended in draws while 
Hibs narrowly won the other clash, courtesy of a disputed penalty.

This is becoming a grudge match of epic proportions stretching back to the beginning of last season. This week will see the 10th and then 11th chapter of Stubbs v Houston unfolding. To date it reads: Falkirk 3 Hibs 2, with four meetings drawn.

Even over the course of this entire season, just the matter of two goals separated the two teams. Falkirk kept their noses in front on goal difference on the last day. Last season, too, was a tale of tightly contested tale of five meetings, including a Scottish Cup semi-final where Falkirk triumphed 1-0, against a background of gathering rancour. Stubbs stressed that Falkirk hadn’t deserve to win a match where his Hibs side had proved so dominant.

Houston merrily explained that Hibs should in that case learn to defend crosses into the box. Stubbs sarcastically replied he was doing just fine but would take such advice “on board”. And on and on it has gone since. Even the extent to which Falkirk celebrated last month’s equaliser in their 2-2 draw at Easter Road, after being 2-0 down with ten minutes left, provoked withering comment from within Hibs.

Yesterday, however, Stubbs accepted that Falkirk were within their rights to celebrate a point that did, in the end, prove so precious. It was the difference between Falkirk having a few days to prepare for tonight and being in Hibs’ place, with Stubbs’ side having had to negotiate a tough extra play-off tie against Raith Rovers.

“Everyone’s entitled to celebrate how they feel,” said Stubbs, with reference to the wild celebrations after Falkirk’s last-gasp equaliser four weeks ago.

Houston has referred to the back and forth as “just pantomime”. Stubbs and he cannot even agree about this. “I don’t like pantomime,” Stubbs said yesterday.

No, Stubbs stressed. This is where it gets really serious. Where budgets, as well as glory, hinge on success.

The warring pair are both desperate to secure the right to play Kilmarnock in a shoot-out for a Premiership place. Whatever is lost in the battle, it must be regarded as collateral. If they lose the respect of each other, then so be it. But Stubbs was eager to point out this has not been the case. Not yet at any rate.

“I have got no problem with Peter,” he said. “We go in at the end of the game and we share a drink – we may not share the same opinion. But that is normal.

“There are not many managers who come out at the end of a game and one says ‘we were brilliant’ and the other says, ‘yes, I know, you were’.

“There’s not many that do that. But the most important thing is I will always have 100 per cent respect for my opposite number even though some might say differently. I can categorically state that.”

“He [Houston] has done a great job,” Stubbs continued. “If I was to say he hasn’t then I would look like an idiot. And I am not prepared to make myself look an idiot. Everyone thought it would be us and Rangers [in the top two]. For them to still be there even a couple of months before the end of the season tells you what a great job he has done.”

Stubbs was also involved in some spiky exchanges with Ray McKinnon last week. Proving how ill-feeling can dissipate quickly, he was spotted hugging the Raith manager after Hibs’ second-leg win on Saturday.

“It was either that or strangle him,” said Stubbs. McKinnnon
had questioned whether Stubbs and his players would be able to handle the pressure of overturning a 1-0 deficit at a nervy Easter Road.

Stubbs yesterday wished McKinnon well at Tannadice, if and when he is confirmed as Mixu Paatelainen’s successor. “You look at the job he has done with Raith in a short space of time on that budget,” he said. “He’s maximised what he’s had to do. He’s brought in some quality players that have done the job for him. They look like a team that plays for the manager.

“I hope he does very well,” added Stubbs, who then noted cautiously: “But I just hope we are not in the same division as each other next season.”

Nor will he wish to meet Houston again – not after this Friday, at least.