As a player Alan Stubbs knew what it was like to be involved in a nip and tuck tussle for a league title with Rangers and he knows how it feels to reward the Govan team’s early season confidence with disappointment and a brutal final blow.
Back in 1997/98, as a Celtic player, he helped deny the Ibrox side their dream of ten-in-a-row, even weighing in with a vital equaliser in one of the key head to heads.
As a manager, with another title in his sights, he is facing a familiar foe and despite Mark Warburton’s side having been tipped to romp the Championship race, the fact that only three points separate the teams, with a big trip to Ibrox looming, is rekindling a fire within him.
“I think that’s what a race does, that’s what a bit of rivalry does,” said the Hibernian boss. “I said six weeks ago there will be plenty of twists and turns and I think people just thought Rangers were going to run away with it. I can understand why, I am not going to make myself look like a fool and say I told you that you were all wrong. But I knew my team would have a say in it because of the quality there.”
Despite slipping 11 points behind their Glasgow counterparts at one stage of the season, no losses since August and 11 wins and two draws from their last 13 games has allowed them to close the gap.
“You’ve seen how hard it was last season when Hearts were so dominant and even they dropped points eventually. It happens,” he added. “But I think the fact we’ve both had a brilliant start to the campaign has probably made it what it is. Now everyone will be looking at the games ahead and trying to predict where they think we will drop points and win points, what could be the pivotal games.
“There will be more trials and tribulations along the way and it will come down to the team that handles it the best.”
On Saturday both teams had to settle for draws but considering Hibs were away to fellow promotion hopefuls and outsiders for the title Falkirk and they were down to ten men by half-time and nine men by the time the final whistle sounded, Stubbs sees it as a point gained rather than two dropped. Delighted with the character of his squad, he was even happier when he realised that his men had lost no ground on the league leaders.
“I can only say so much about me knowing my team has got character but I think there has to be evidence of that at times. I know for a fact that Saturday is one of those times I can now point towards,” said Stubbs, who now faces Queen of the South bolstered by the news that midfielder John McGinn will be free to feature after his red card was overturned.
“The desire and the belief, the bravery, they had all the commodities that you would want to see in a team last Saturday. I walked into that dressing room very proud of my players.
“They will have taken so much confidence and belief out of that game. They are rising to the challenge, I think you’ve seen that. We have been chasing all along and sometimes it can be hard to chase, but sometimes it can be easy to chase as well. They’ve put themselves in a position where they know they are there.”
Trying to shy away from comparisons with that Celtic team of 1997/98 and the way they battled throughout the campaign to deny Rangers their dream, Stubbs refused to reveal whether this is the most exciting league campaign he has experienced since. He added: “I thought I had done a good job of avoiding that question. It is very exciting. I’m really enjoying it but it’s not about me. If I’m enjoying it then I know the players are enjoying it because I see them in training and they are speaking about it and I don’t have a problem with that. You can see by their manner and their tone that they are up for it. You will have players saying things from both sides now and everybody will jump on it but that is part and parcel of a championship race. It is about one team getting one over on the other.”
Both clubs will attempt to do that when the transfer window opens in January, with many predicting Rangers will splash the cash and recruit again in the hope of opening up an unassailable gap at the top of the table, Others are waiting to see if the money needed materialises and if the men enlisted are up to the task.
“I think we are all waiting to see if that does happen,” said Stubbs. “There has been a lot of talk about it but we will see what happens. All I’m concentrating on is what I am potentially looking to bring in! And that might be quite exciting and could surprise a few people as well. I like to pull rabbits out of the hat, you know that. So you can wait with bated breath.”