THERE is enough riding on this afternoon’s clash between Falkirk and Hibernian without investing it with grudge-match properties. That, at least, is Alan Stubbs’ contention, prior to a reunion with Peter Houston that he anticipated would be framed in the context of their recent public spat.
It is just as well they have already made up then, the Easter Road manager smiled yesterday. The Under-20s fixtures list meant the pair had a timely meeting-before-a-meeting earlier this week, when the second string sides from Hibs and Falkirk fought out a 2-2 draw.
“I’ve seen him already and I’ve shaken his hand so that takes that one out of the equation,” said Stubbs, who resisted the urge to blow a raspberry as well at reporters he imagined would be crestfallen by this news. Not that there was ever any issues between the pair, the manager stressed.
“I’ve got no problem. I never have had a problem. I don’t see a problem when the comments that you give are honest. There’s been a lot made of it. It’s helped fill in a few gaps in the broadsheets but I’ve got every respect for Peter. I’ve said that all along. I’m not saying anything different. It won’t change on Saturday.
“Let the football do the talking. It’s not about me and Peter. Far from it. There will be 22 good players on the pitch. It’s about the players, not me and Peter. That’s the most important thing. I shook his hand at the under-20 game during the week so there’s no problem. I went straight over and shook his hand.”
Stubbs is probably aware it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if his recent fall-out with Houston did indeed occupy people’s minds, allowing his players to get on with the task of doing what they need to do this afternoon to seal second place. Without relying on help from elsewhere – specifically rivals Hearts, who host Rangers – Hibs need to win this afternoon, which they have not done in four attempts against Falkirk to date this season.
It’s not about me and Peter. There will be 22 good players on the pitch. It’s about the playersAlan Stubbs
He will be the most relaxed person in the visitors’ camp this afternoon, Stubbs promised Hibs supporters. There will be no repeat fall-out with Houston, no sense of revenge in the air following that Scottish Cup semi-final defeat last month that sparked some “to and fro” between the managers. This was just the latest setback to befall Hibs at the hands of Houston’s side.
The only time Hibs have taken anything at all from Falkirk during the current campaign was in a 3-3 draw at Easter Road in January, but even that felt like a defeat since the home side led 3-1 at half-time. “I have to be the calmest person in the dressing room,” said Stubbs. “That’s my job. And I will be. There is no point in me being up tight and nervous about it because the players can sense that.
“I’ll be keeping them relaxed. It will be the same as other games; they will be ready for the game, I can assure them that. But they will have to be controlled and relaxed, and they will get that from me. I have every confidence in them. I’ve said that all season, I believe in the players. I don’t see why that should change for the last game of the regular season.”
There is the potential for something to linger following their last clash at Hampden, which Falkirk won 1-0 after weathering something of a Hibs storm. Houston’s subsequent complaint was that Stubbs never gave the opposition any credit. Rather than it simply being a case of Hibs’ misfortune, he argued, what about Falkirk’s success in taking advantage of the Easter Road side’s weakness at defending crosses? Each of the six goals Falkirk have scored against Hibs this season has been sourced from a cross into the box.
This was perhaps the most wounding aspect of Houston’s post-match scolding of Stubbs, since it implied the Hibs manager was not doing his job. Rather than bleating about luck, Houston was saying, Stubbs should be working harder on the training ground to try to get to the root of these defensive problems.
It was notable that although they created precious few chances to score, the one goal Alloa did score against Hibs in their 4-1 defeat at Easter Road last weekend came from a cross into the box. So does Houston have a point? It will be certainly something that is playing on Hibs’ minds today, which was perhaps Houston’s plan all along.
“The most important thing in football is scoring goals,” answered Stubbs, when pressed on the subject of this perceived soft centre at the heart of the Hibs defence. If you don’t score goals, you don’t win games of football. And we’ve done that quite well this season. That’s why we’re in second place at this moment in time.We’ve done it more than other teams. So we’re doing something right. We can always improve. I’m a defender so I hate conceding goals.”
Hibs have been fairly frugal under Stubbs, conceding the second lowest number of goals in the league, three fewer than Rangers. This could become significant today if the Ibrox side and Hibs finish tied on points. But Stubbs knows that a 1-0 victory, earned with a scruffy goal, will guarantee his side second spot, whatever happens elsewhere.
The Hibs manager has no plans to receive score flashes from Tynecastle. “I am sure three and a half thousand fans will keep me updated,” he said.
He knows it is about doing what needs to be done. It’s about not failing this latest test of nerve. He is aware Hibs are not known for passing such challenges, most recently at Hampden. Managers come and go but still there remains a question mark about Hibs’ mettle.
Possibly this is the day they will show another side to them and secure the reward of an 18-day break, some of which Hibs plan to spend abroad, before the pressure is ramped up again.