High up in the main stand at Falkirk Stadium the wind was howling on an unseasonably cold day. As he jumped on the spot to keep warm, the wise old ex-pro reckoned that both Rangers and Hibernian would be shuddering at the threat posed by the third Championship team to qualify for the play-offs.
“If I was a betting man I’d put a few quid on Queen of the South,” declared the former great, shortly before picking up the mic for his radio duties. “Hibs are sh**e-in’ it having to play them, Rangers are sh**e-in’ it too. I really think Queens could go all the way.”
There’s more to Queens than an intimate knowledge of their artificial pitch
The third team – makes them sound quite mysterious, doesn’t it? In that most mysterious of classic movies, The Third Man, a fatal road accident is about to be filed as tragic but routine until a shadowy presence is discovered to have been at the scene. Maybe there are some fans of Hibs and Rangers who thought this season would be routine. For one of these clubs, not having won promotion automatically, it is now going to be tragic. But what if it was tragic for both with the Doonhamers progressing?
This could happen. Of course it could. Indeed, Queens are already being openly backed in some quarters, with Hearts striker James Keatings among the first to give them his vote after the order of the play-offs was confirmed.
Having seen them at close hand – and seen them off along with the other two during Hearts’ romp to the title – he’s in a good position to judge. He also knows what it takes to win the play-offs, having been in the Hamilton Accies team which dragged Hibs down to the second tier. “I’ve had a weird feeling all along about Queen of the South,” Keatings said. “They’re a good side and they’ve proved that against Rangers and Hibs this season. I’m sure they can cause an upset.”
Now James Fowler is probably hating mention of these weird feelings and wishing people would keep them to themselves. Doubtless the Queens manager would like his team to stay as mysterious as possible, right up until about ten to two on 23 May, by which time they could have climbed over the higher-finishing bigger names in the Championship to claim the right to take on the second-worst team in the top flight. But this is the special nature of the play-offs. Until the Scottish Cup final at the end of the month, they’re the only show for miles around. The long gaps between ties – at least in the early stages – leave plenty of time for talking. And we are all fascinated to know if they are going to match or even top the incredible drama last time out.
When the play-offs were re-introduced for the top division there was some scepticism. Back before the turn of the century, as far as we could recall, they had produced panic-stricken football on bone-dry pitches. Aberdeen, Dundee United and Hibs all grimly held on to their big-league membership cards and there were no shocks. But Hamilton changed that.
This time, for obvious reasons, there has been more focus on the Championship with a good number of matches televised. Come the next few weeks, Queens’ spirited counter-attacking game, with Derek Lyle and Gavin Reilly supplying a dual goal threat, will not therefore be as big an eye-opener for the armchair audience as the Accies were under Alex Neil in that Easter Road decider, both for their determination to keep passing amid the tension-soaked atmosphere and the presence of a carrot-haired Ziggy in their ranks (Gordon, not Stardust). But that doesn’t mean Queens will be any less formidable for Rangers and Hibs. If we look back at their games against these two this season you can understand why Fowler says his team have nothing to fear. Indeed, in these mini-leagues, Queens sit at the top of both. They left Rangers shell-shocked after a drastic-plastic experience at Palmerston, the game which signalled the beginning of the end for Ally McCoist. You would have thought Rangers would have gone back there later determined not to lose 2-0 again. They didn’t; they were beaten 3-0. At Ibrox there was a draw and a win for Rangers, although Queens were twice ahead in that one. Against Hibs the outcomes were identical: two victories for Queens, one for the opposition and one draw. The men from Dumfries were unbeaten at Easter Road, proving there’s more to them than an intimate knowledge of their own artificial surface, and last month’s win in Leith showed how they can frustrate and break quickly, although the result was hardly smash and grab. That defeat will serve as a warning to Hibs, should they have to face Queens. Meanwhile, Rangers will be hoping their victory at Easter Road the previous fortnight will prey on the minds of Alan Stubbs’ players, should Hibs have to face them. These teams know each other well but, in the strange, scary world of the play-offs, maybe not at all. The ties will be different games with their own dynamic and dread.
Six cup finals, that’s what they say, at least for those who have to come through the entire sequence. If Hibs were paranoid you’d think the remark was specifically aimed at spooking them, such has been their reluctance to break their Scottish Cup hoodoo, one of football’s most enduring. They, and Queens, may hold an advantage over Rangers in that they have appeared in play-offs before and the Ibrox side haven’t. Indeed, given that they were involved in the 1990s, Hibs almost count as the country’s leading play-off veterans, although that’s nothing to boast about as the experience can be pulverising, even when you win.
We haven’t yet factored in Team 11 from the Premiership, identity unknown. They are not going to be like Hibs were, top-six contenders at the turn of the year only to career down the league, an unstoppable force of mince. But, given who’s up for them already, these play-offs are already stuffed with intrigue.
Hibs are being hailed as the team which play the best football, but they would do well to ignore that. Rangers are trying to convince themselves it’s better to have to play an extra round of games and are probably going to avoid training on plastic this time, seeing as it did them no good whatsoever before.
And, of course, let’s not forget Queen of the South.