THERE is a seductive lure about a 2-0 first-leg lead against lower-league opponents, particularly when you have the home tie still to come. Relax, that scoreline says. You’re more than halfway there. Success is in sight. Stay patient and the prize will be yours.
Needless to say, Terry Butcher will be urging his players to resist any such tempting thoughts tomorrow when they take the field against Hamilton Accies. Hibernian may have that advantage at the midpoint of the Premiership play-off, but their manager will urge them to take nothing at all for granted. As far as he is concerned, they must approach this second leg as if it were a standalone game starting scoreless.
“We’re looking at the game as 0-0 anyway, and just saying ‘Right, if we win this match over the 90 minutes then we’re in the Premiership next year’,” Butcher said yesterday. “That’s how we look at that and make sure that we finish the job off.
“It’s like a European match in many aspects. What do you do when you’ve won 2-0 away from home? Although away goals don’t count double in this.
“What do you do? Do you sit back and soak it up, or do you go for more goals? I think we approach it as if it’s a one-off game, and just say ‘Right, we want to win this match’.”
Butcher’s caution is understandable. Hibs were the better side at New Douglas Park on Wednesday night, and Jason Cummings’ goals gave them a confidence they have hardly had since the turn of the year, but their fragility remains all too evident. Accies were poor – a shadow of the side that came so close to automatic promotion from the Championship – but chances are they will not play so ineffectually again.
“Hamilton have to score goals, there’s no doubt about that, and they’re a team that can score goals – they’ve scored a lot of goals this season and they pose us a threat,” Butcher added. “On Wednesday night they kept the ball very well.
“They’re a good side. They don’t become a bad side because we beat them 2-0 the other night. They’ve got 90 minutes left of their season – they’ll want more than 90 minutes, possibly, with extra time. But they certainly want to do well in their last 90 minutes, but then so do we. We want to finish the season on a high for us as well.”
The key to finishing the season on a high for Hibs is beginning this game on a high. If they get an early goal, that, surely, is it. Hamilton, already under pressure because of their 2-0 deficit to begin the match on the attack, would then have to push so many men forward that they would be fatally exposed at the back.
The other side of that coin, and the reason for Butcher’s wariness, is what would happen if it were Accies who scored early on. It will not take much to make Hibs start to doubt themselves again, and particularly if they concede from a set piece, the defence might revert to their old shaky ways. What is more, according to Butcher, Hibs did not play particularly well on Wednesday – certainly not as well as in some of the post-split matches they lost. That may say something about the relative quality of the opposition, but the manager prefers to regard this tie as a case apart, and not one in which previous form is of any relevance.
“We’ve been losing games, but we’ve actually been playing pretty well. Ironically, we played pretty well in a lot of the last four games – probably better than we played on Wednesday night. We lost three of those four games and won the other night. Hamilton are saying the same – that they’ve played a lot worse and won.
“But when it comes to the finality and the importance of these two games, you tend to disregard what’s happened in the past. We’ve had to do that. We couldn’t take any great credit or confidence from what we’d done in the league forward into these two games. It was about a complete change of attitude and mindset, and everybody becoming closer and a greater unity. I think that was the key to the ten days before this match.”
The other key, according to Butcher, was the ten-day gap itself. Hibs needed that time to get the defeat by Kilmarnock on the last day of the regular season out of their systems. Hamilton, conversely, had little time to rest, having only come through their play-off semi-final against Falkirk three days before their home game with Hibs.
“Yes, it was good for us,” Butcheraccepted. “We didn’t want to go into another game straight away.
“We had the ten days because we’re the Premiership team and the other teams had to play. It’s been pretty unfair on the other teams in that respect.
“But definitely those ten days helped enormously, because there’s no game to play, you can relax a little bit more and you’re not preparing for a game – all you’re preparing for is the training, and getting the boys mentally right and talking about the opposition.
“We didn’t know who that was at the time, but we talked about the two teams. We got training on Astroturf straight away, changed the structure of our training as well. And I think those different aspects helped the boys enormously. They certainly helped me.
“We based ourselves at Spartans, which was different to basing ourselves up here. I think those changes helped, because, if you look at the normality, it wasn’t working because we were losing games. So when you change things round, sometimes that can have an effect. Sometimes the little things can add up to the bigger picture. Changing things around certainly helped the players.”
No matter how woeful Hibs have been as a team in recent months, regarded individually, their players should have been too good to get into this mess. After a long run without a single victory, Wednesday night’s win will have reminded them that they do actually have what it takes to get the better of other teams. They should have more than enough to finish the job against Hamilton tomorrow – provided, that is, they do not make the mistake of thinking it is finished already.