CELTIC’S effortless domestic domination this season has left us with only a handful of games that have had a lot riding on them. Now, however, we could have five consecutive rounds of meaningful matches, as five teams all fight to avoid the play-off spot.
Supporters of the clubs in question may yearn for some inconsequential mid-table action at this stage of the season, but the rest of us will welcome the coming contests with something approaching sadistic glee.
For clubs that cannot aspire to be champions, and players who have never taken part in a cup final, a relegation battle is the ultimate test of character. They have to strike a fine balance in such matches between appreciating the urgency of the situation and not being overwhelmed by it; remaining calm and unhurried, yet maintaining an acute awareness of when to go in for the kill.
Of course, the problem for the clubs in question – Hibernian, Kilmarnock, Ross County, St Mirren and Partick Thistle – is that finding such a balance has not come easily to them this season. If it had, they might well have escaped the threat of relegation already.
What is more, the larger that threat becomes, the more pressure the players feel. For a club on a losing run, each successive game can come to feel more ominous.
Pre-match nerves are normal: what coaches do not want is for their players to have a pre-match sinking feeling, for them to take to the pitch wondering what precisely is going to go wrong this time and how their latest defeat will come about.
For Hibs in particular, that pressure is a factor. They go into Saturday’s match at St Mirren in seventh place, four points clear of second-bottom Partick Thistle – but with the worst form in the bottom six.
They have not won since getting the better of Ross County in mid-February. Their past six games have yielded just two points. For a team with hopes of beating St Johnstone into the top half of the table not so long ago, it has been a calamitous collapse.
When they moved to Easter Road from Inverness late last year, Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas knew they had a major rebuilding job on their hands. But they did not expect things to get as bad as this.
Why the rot set in so rapidly after a short honeymoon for the new management team remains a mystery. It is too simplistic to say the current players are not good enough – after all, this is still basically the same squad that Butcher inherited, and that took 16 points from the nine games which followed his arrival, including what looked at the time to be a decisive ten-point haul from the Christmas and New Year fixtures.
Yet whatever the explanation for the decline, that points advantage could be a crucial factor. If Hibs win on Saturday, they will move on to 37 points, which should be enough.
Of course, that is an if of considerable magnitude for a team that has failed to score in its last three matches, conceding two goals each time. But Malpas is confident that the four-point cushion can provide comfort, enabling his players to display more confidence than their opponents, who will drop to 11th on Saturday afternoon if they lose and Thistle get at least a point.
“I think if you spoke to the other clubs they’d rather be in our position because of the number of points we’ve got,” the assistant manager said. “But it’s important we get more points and get everything sorted out.
“We could be worse. We could be in 11th place just now. We’ve got to be positive about it and go and play and enjoy the challenge.
“For 90 minutes you’ve got to do your damnedest to make sure you’re better than the opposition. We’ve shot ourselves in the foot a few times lately. But that’s in the past – it’s what we do this week.
“The closer you get to the end of the season, the games become more important. You only win three points, but they can become more important, and nerves do play a part.
“But that’s something you have to handle as a team and as individuals. I would hate to think that any of the players don’t feel any nerves before games. But you don’t want it to affect their performance.”
The fact that so many teams are still in danger of ending up in the play-off spot has heightened interest in the bottom six; and the fact that one of them is Hibs has piqued the curiosity of neutrals even further.
It is the sort of attention that Malpas would rather do without – and he let slip an inkling of the pressure he and Butcher are under when he suggested there was a general desire for Hibs to fail.
“It’s great for you guys,” he said. “It gives you something to write about. Something to knock us about.
“But that’s nothing to do with how we prepare. It’s what we want as a group and what you get on a Saturday as a group.
“It’s quite tight. Everybody thinks they can beat each other. A lot of the media are desperate for us to be there because it’s a good story for them – so good for them.”
That mild persecution complex should evaporate quickly if Hibs win on Saturday, but the management team will not relax just yet.
They have no desire to play percentages or take a punt on what might constitute safety, preferring to keep up the intensity at least until the arithmetic ensures that they cannot finish 11th.
“It’s about winning on Saturday,” Malpas added. “Then we’ll sit down and say ‘Well, this is the league table now, what do we need to do?’
“I’ll tell you the answer now. We’ll go and play against Hearts next and we’ll try to win that game. Until somebody comes and tells you ‘That’s the season over now and you’ve got X number of points’.
“We’ll have enough points to stay up. I’m sure of that.”
Probably so, but a lot of Scottish football fans would rather see Hibs – and indeed the other four teams – be forced to fight on into the final week of fixtures. Not because they hate the Easter Road side or indeed any of the other clubs, but because, having been deprived of meaning and excitement for too much of the season, they want it to last now it is finally here.