TO CELEBRATE or not to celebrate? This is the dilemma that Hibernian desperately hope to be wrestling with at just after 2pm this afternoon.
This is when they hope the final ball of an interminable campaign that started as long ago as 18 July has been kicked.
Manager Terry Butcher thinks avoiding a relegation play-off place by winning against Kilmarnock on the last day would be something to celebrate – “you better believe it, it’s been a traumatic season,” he said yesterday – while skipper Liam Craig thinks not. Of course, whether or not they will need toaddress this issue hinges on one big question.
In order for Craig and his team-mates to be shaking mud from their boots for the last time in season 2014-15, something fairly significant needs to happen. They need to win. They need to do something they have only done twice this year. They need to do something they have done just five times in total under Butcher.
And in order for this to happen, they will need to score. They will need to do something they have done only three times in their last nine games. And if they do score only once, they will have to keep a clean sheet against their opponents – something that they have achieved only twice this year.
But Butcher has conditioned himself to expect only victory. He has, he says, planned out the day already, “right down to the celebrations after the game”. There is the usual walk with the dog, Fritz, in the morning, along a local golf course and beach. Given that it will be 6am, it is likely he will be alone with his thoughts. And they will be positive ones. Which is why he has already imagined the celebrations afterwards.
“I’m not being cocky when I say that,” Butcher said. He has also imagined, very briefly, the alternative scenario. But it is clear he has been trying his best to keep his players upbeat this week. And if they do win, he insisted yesterday that they reserve the right to celebrate. However, on this matter he found a contradictory voice belonging to his own skipper, who sounded more in favour of quickly disappearing up the tunnel even if Hibs do what is required.
Asked whether celebrations would be in order if Hibs were to secure the win, Craig answered: “No, not at all. It’s not going to be a celebration, it’s not something to celebrate, finishing ninth, tenth in the league. I think there will be a lot of relief but it’s definitely not a case for celebrating.”
Butcher had a slightly different take on it. “When you haven’t won for ages and won just one in 18, you grab at any small thing,” he said. “It won’t be a small thing tomorrow – it will be huge when we win the game. It will be worthy of celebration as it’s an intense match. If our boys stand up to that and win then it deserves celebrating at the time.”
Both Butcher and Craig are united in their wish to consign this season to history as quickly as possible. They want no business with a Premiership play-off final, the first leg of which is scheduled to be played a week on Wednesday. The 1-1 draw Hibs earned the last time they met Kilmarnock in February will not be enough. What they need is something more like the 3-0 victory posted the last time the teams clashed at Easter Road, when Hibs were in the midst of three successive victories, and they hovered on the edge of the top six.
According to Butcher, the inquest into how and why it has gone from there to here is for another time. “We did not want to be here but we are here,” he said. “How we got here is immaterial really. It’s for other people to decide and talk about.”
Although he suggested, after the defeat by Ross County on Tuesday, that the pressure would be on Kilmarnock today, he said he was “steeled” for the results that condemned Hibs to 11th place on Wednesday evening, and meant three points are a must this afternoon.
“Even if Kilmarnock had lost [against St Mirren] we would have needed a draw or a win,” he said. Again accentuating the positive, he added that being in Hibs’ position is preferable. They at least know what they have to do. They do not, as Butcher experienced when with Inverness five years ago, require only a point, meaning they could be caught in two minds about how to approach the match. Inverness lost on that particular occasion against Falkirk, who needed a win to stay in the top flight and duly got it.
“In a way, I am quite pleased we are where we are and know what we have to do,” said Butcher. “It makes it crystal clear what our course of action is.”
But the task is not made any easier just by knowing what needs to be done. Winning is not something Hibs are used to doing. Focus has been the watchword this week. Keep your mind only on the task in hand, Butcher has stressed to his players. He has invited James McPake and Lewis Stevenson to “re-live” their experiences of playing Dunfermline two years ago, in a game which condemned the East End Park side to the drop. They needed a win to keep the question alive until the final day, while Hibs needed only a point to secure safety. In the end, the Easter Road team won 4-0.
“They spoke about how calm they were in the dressing room beforehand and how fixed and focused they were,” said Butcher. “That is what we have to be and what I know we will be.”
The manager was giving nothing away about team selection other than to mention the importance of experience, and to confirm there were no injury worries.
Whether or not that means a recall for McPake remains to be seen, although it would represent a gamble considering his lack of match practice. Butcher name-checked English Premier League champions-elect Manchester City, and if the similarity between Hibs’ situation and theirs is not immediately obvious, he explained that they, too, have climbed the league, “right at the last gasp”.
“A perfectly-timed run to finish third bottom is not a great thing to put on your CV – but it would certainly please a lot of people at Easter Road, and all over Leith,” he added. “It’s just the finality of it, a one-off game, like a boxing match, a gladiatorial combat. That is it, winner takes all. ”
Except in Kilmarnock’s case, a draw is also enough. But Butcher, who sounded as if he was relishing the challenge, had another aphorism on hand. “Cometh the hour, cometh the men”, he promised.