ALAN Stubbs would be among the first to admit he was not always the most stylish centre-half who ever patrolled the box.
But he usually got the job done – and getting the job done against Rangers today is what Hibernian need to do in order to re-ignite their title hopes.
The Hibs team Stubbs has created is not necessarily one in his own image as a combative, hard-tacking centre-half. But they will need to be streetwise if they are to prevail this afternoon.
They will also have to live with the expectation that has built courtesy of nine wins in ten games since they last played Rangers at the end of August, when they lost a tightly-contested meeting 1-0.
Stubbs is confident his side will rise to the occasion. He is comforted by knowledge that Hibs are not just a better side than last season but also a more resilient one.
If he has one criticism during their last Championship campaign, it’s that his team drew too many games, invariably from winning positions.
While he has players who are more than capable of playing attractive football, they have recently showcased an ability to win awkward encounters. Away victories at Falkirk and Raith Rovers in the last fortnight mean they entertain Rangers with the chance to cut the deficit to just five points.
Although they have lost the creative outlet of Scott Allan, Hibs have since been augmented by the likes of Liam Henderson and Marvin Bartley, who have added strength to the midfield. They are, it seems, sturdier.
On the subject of those potential wins that turned into frustrating draws last season, Stubbs said: “We were sloppy or conceded a late goal or from a set-piece. I don’t know if you would call them better or not but this season more than anything I think the players have just learned from that experience.
“As a group they have got a real togetherness, they want to achieve. And when you have got that it’s great to see because that’s a commodity you sometimes can’t buy as a coach.”
Stubbs admits he would like to have played in this current Hibs team because they do not give the ball away cheaply. They make a centre-half’s job a lot easier.
“I’d have enjoyed it because there are good players in there who want to play,” he said. “And when you have got that then more often than not the game is played in front of you.
“I would have hated it if we were giving the ball away and were under pressure all the time. That’s the be-all and end-all. I think on Sunday it will be two teams who want to entertain. We are in a business now where no one wants to turn up and see someone play for a draw.”
He is confident this won’t be the case later today. While Stubbs can speak with unarguable authority about Hibs’ own intention to go for the win that will sustain their title hopes, he is able to make an educated guess it isn’t Rangers’ plan to play for a point either.
Indeed, the Ibrox side have won every game this season bar one, which they lost to St Johnstone. They have yet to draw under Mark Warburton.
“Unless Mark turns and plays differently then I can only see it being an open game,” said Stubbs. “From my point of view it’s about getting the balance. Yes we want to attack, but we don’t want to give anything away either.”
Whatever happens, he and Warburton will share a drink afterwards. Tensions grew between the pair earlier in the season as the Scott Allan affair rumbled on.
Stubbs is relieved to be clear of that saga. So is probably everyone else. Rather than today’s match being placed in the context of Allan’s first return to Easter Road since signing for Rangers, it is being treated for what it is – an eagerly-anticipated top-of-the-table clash that might well have huge significance in the title race.
Instead of Ibrox, Allan is now at Celtic. Hibs, meanwhile, are arguably stronger without him considering how busy Stubbs has been in the transfer market since the midfielder’s departure.
Rangers, too, are getting on fine without Allan’s talents. Perhaps Stubbs and Warburton can reflect on this when they shoot the breeze together following the final whistle. He insists he will treat Warburton with the courtesy extended to every other manager he hosts.
“My door is always open to any manager,” said Stubbs. “Listen, I am paid to win games of football. Managers are very rarely the best of friends – we have a job to do. I want to beat him and he wants to beat me. When you have got that you have a rivalry. I was a terrible competitor as a player but I am a lot more relaxed as a coach, believe me. But I want to win. You do what you have to do to win – but in a respectful way.”
“There will always be respect no matter what,” he added. “I will always shake someone’s hand. I will never turn my back on someone because we have had a fall-out or had words. That’s me. Everyone is welcome after the game to come in for a drink. That hand of friendship will be outstretched on Sunday just the same, whatever happens.”