EVEN in the early season days of post-relegation frailty, when they lost four of their first six Championship matches and hovered precariously above the drop zone in September, Alan Stubbs always had faith in his Hibs team to come good. However, for all the belief he had in himself and his players to turn things round, the Easter Road head coach concedes he couldn’t have envisaged that they would be going into their final league meeting with Rangers six points clear of the pre-season title favourites.
Over the past few months, the two teams have been on very contrasting paths. For all their shortcomings, Rangers were a pretty consistent outfit in the league under Ally McCoist. They won nine of their first 12 league games and, as recently as 6 December, were ten points clear of Hibs, who, despite improved form since September, were being undermined by home draws.
McCoist’s departure in December, however, resulted in Rangers going into freefall under Kenny McDowall at a time when Hibs were really discovering their mojo. The Easter Road side have won eight of their last nine in all competitions, while Rangers have won just one of their last nine. It has left Hibs, third favourites for the title at the start of the season, in command of the battle for second place in the Championship.
“I was hopeful we could get close but flipping the points completely I thought would be a big ask,” said Stubbs. “I thought our form was good but obviously we didn’t know what was going to happen with results over the last few weeks. The most important thing is we’ve won the games and, when you win games of football, it can affect other results. Whether it has or not I’m not too sure but it’s definitely a lot harder when you’re chasing. Obviously results around us have gone our way and we’ve capitalised on that, and given ourselves an opportunity. The fact we’re ahead of them now will change nothing in the way we approach the game.”
Stubbs, unsurprisingly, was in no mood for grand boasts about what his team may do tomorrow or in the remaining two months or so of the season. He has adopted a game-by-game mantra and insists he is focused primarily on securing a play-off spot before he turns his attention to the task of finishing in second place.
“All my attention and focus is purely on just what we’re going to do,” he said. “We know that if we can keep winning games of football then we will have it in our own hands. Our target was to finish in the play-offs. I want to get that secured first and then see where the rest of the season takes us. The most important thing is that, at this stage of the season, we are where we want to be.”
Since the last meeting between the teams – when Hibs made it three consecutive league wins against the Ibrox team last month – Rangers have changed their manager, with Stuart McCall replacing the beleaguered McDowall. Stubbs anticipates some kind of upturn sooner or later under the former Motherwell manager. “Stuart’s got a big job but I think he’s the right person for the job,” said Stubbs. “He’s got to try and do a lot of things in a short space of time which won’t be easy but I’m sure he’ll be working night and day to try and address the situation. It’s difficult but Stuart will just be waiting for that one result that could potentially start him off. He’ll be hoping it’s this weekend and I’m hoping that it’s not.”
If Hearts win at Falkirk today, a draw at Easter Road tomorrow will see the Tynecastle side crowned champions. Stubbs hopes that scenario does not come to pass, but said: “A lot of credit’s got to go to Robbie [Neilson] and his team – they deserve it. They’ve been fantastic this season – we just haven’t been able to get close enough to effect the title race. You won’t hear me saying anything other than ‘well done’. They’ve gone about their business in a very professional manner week to week and no-one can argue about what they’ve done.”
Hibs lead Rangers by an aggregate score of 9-1 in the three league clashes between the teams, and in light of their contrasting recent form and the league standings, the Easter Road side are widely viewed as favourites both to win tomorrow and also to secure second place behind Hearts. Goalkeeper Mark Oxley insists there’s no chance of his side taking it for granted that they will leave the ailing Glasgow side in their slipstream.
“Rangers might just need one big result to turn it round,” he said. “That’s how football is. If you treat games with complacency, it will come back and bite you on the bum. At the beginning of the season, we were a bit naive going into games, thinking we could just turn up and hopefully get a result even if we didn’t play well. That’s why you can’t go into games thinking ‘we have beat them 9-1 in the past’ [on aggregate]. We’ll be treating it like any other game.”
Hibs are hopeful that their two top scorers, Jason Cummings and Dominique Malonga, will recover from knee injuries in time to start tomorrow.