NO-ONE needs to tell Terry Butcher how stressful a relegation battle can be when it comes down to the last two games of a season.
It is why the Hibernian manager will urge his players to seize the opportunity tonight to spare themselves the kind of agony – both physical and mental – which he experienced playing for his beloved Ipswich Town almost 30 years ago.
Victory over Ross County in Dingwall will guarantee Hibs’ Premiership status and allow them to end their desperately disappointing campaign on a relatively carefree note at home to Kilmarnock on Saturday.
Butcher is certainly hoping to avoid the kind of drama and ultimate sense of despair which enveloped him when Ipswich were relegated from the old First Division in England in 1986. Going into the last two games of the season, away to West Ham United and Sheffield Wednesday, the Suffolk club needed one win to stay up.
“That was the worst experience of my career,” reflects Butcher. “We couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo that season at Ipswich. It was a bit like it is at Hibs just now, really, we just couldn’t get goals. We lost about 15 games 1-0 that season.
“Don’t get me started about the West Ham game, which was our second last of the season. We were 1-0 up and on course for the win we needed, then Alan Dickens managed to bend a toe-poke beyond our ’keeper Paul Cooper into the net.
“Even 1-1 would have been good for us with another game to go, but late in the game Mark Ward went down in the box for West Ham, who were going for the title that year. It was a blatant dive but the ref gave a penalty which Ray Stewart, as he usually did, scored from to give West Ham a 2-1 win. I actually went for the referee after the game. I had to be held back by the Ipswich manager, Bobby Ferguson, who I managed to elbow in the face. That was another fine for me, but there you go.
“I then put my foot through a wall in the Upton Park dressing room – right up to my thigh. It wasn’t a solid wall, so I was up to my thigh in formica. I looked like the old comedian Harry Worth, with one leg sticking out. It was embarrassing, I’ll tell you.
“I offered to pay for the damage but John Lyall, the West Ham manager and a real gentleman, was very good about it. He just said it was great to see someone who cared so much about their club.
“We then lost 1-0 at Sheffield Wednesday but still didn’t know if we were down for sure. In those days, the relegation games weren’t played at the same time. Oxford, who needed a win against Arsenal to stay up and relegate us, didn’t play until the Monday night. So they knew exactly what to do. The Arsenal lads already had the beach towels out and Oxford won 3-0.
“I listened to the Oxford game on the radio. I actually had Jim Rosenthal, the TV presenter, around for lunch. He’s a good friend but he’s an Oxford fan – I don’t make things easy for myself do I? He didn’t come round to gloat but only one of us was going to be happy. He managed to leave my house unscathed.
“It’s not just me who has been relegated in the past, there are one or two at Hibs who have experienced it. It’ll try to use that experience to help – I’ll try every trick in the book to help the players right now.
“We’re still not out if yet by any means but it has always been in our own hands. We now have a scenario where we know if we win in Dingwall, we are safe.
“We have drifted, slumped really, into this position but over the last two weeks we have given ourselves an opportunity to secure safety with a win. There is a finality about it now. I think we are in a good position now in terms of the mentality and confidence of the squad. The togetherness of everyone is a lot better than it was a couple of weeks ago and that’s a huge plus.”
Butcher will be forced into at least one change to his starting line-up with Michael Nelson suspended after his dismissal in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Partick Thistle. He is likely to be replaced in central defence by Jordon Forster, who is available again after a ban. Midfielder Kevin Thomson is doubtful after limping off at the weekend with a thigh injury.
“It will be a good game in Dingwall,” said Butcher. “It’s a ground where have good memories, having won on our last two visits there. Our players have shown they have an appetite for it in our last two games against Hearts and Thistle, now it’s a case of finishing the job.”
Ross County manager Derek Adams, meanwhile, has urged his “match-winners” to go out and get the win against Butcher’s men that could end up ensuring their own top-flight safety.
Adams has called upon the likes of Melvin de Leeuw, Filip Kiss and Richard Brittain – who have all grabbed vital goals in
recent weeks – to stand up and be counted this evening.
“We have got match-winners in the team, we have got players who can do something special and we are looking for them to do that,” he said.
BT Sport Q&A: Rangers | Hibs | Neil Lennon
THIS week’s BT Sport video Q&A looks at whether Rangers fans will buy season tickets and if the club’s supporters will force a change of ownership.
The form of Hibs under Terry Butcher is also examined following the Easter Road side’s derby defeat while the future of Neil Lennon is also considered following the announcement that his assistant Johan Mjallby is to depart at the end of the season.
• Email your Scottish football question for the BT Sport panel to answer. The next show will be recorded on May 7 after St Johnstone v Celtic, which will also be shown live on BT Sport, with the video available on The Scotsman website the following day. You can also tweet us @TheScotsman.
A line-up of experts will handle your questions after each BT Sport game. Most match days, the team includes Darrell Currie, Derek Rae and Gary McAllister.
Over this season, BT Sport will air 30 SPFL matches plus 10 Rangers games from the SPFL League One.
• T&C We can not guarantee which presenters will answer your questions. Questions are vetted and no correspondence will be entered into.