Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill credits Alan Stubbs for restoring the confidence of the Hibernian players and supporters ahead of Sunday’s William Hill Scottish Cup fifth round tie against Hearts at Tynecastle.
He knows what he is talking about when it comes to Edinburgh derbies, having appeared in a dozen of them as a Hibs player between 1993-96, scoring in two 2-1 victories during that time.
O’Neill would not have fancied his former club’s chances in this fixture under Stubbs’ immediate predecessors Terry Butcher, Pat Fenlon or Colin Calderwood. All three had losing records against the team from Gorgie (Calderwood failed to record a solitary win against them) but O’Neill believes that Stubbs has replaced the trepidation which used to accompany the match for those of a green-and-white persuasion with a more confident approach.
“That comes from the manager,” he said. “This generation of players, particularly the midfield four, don’t have that experience of being bottlers – they weren’t there in the play-off situation [last year], and there are very few of that team who are left, just Lewis [Stevenson] and Paul Hanlon from the team which was relegated. The current group of players is probably better equipped to deal with that. You have the weird scenario now where they are probably going to be favourites to win the League Cup and the Scottish Cup match with Hearts.
“I think Hibs will look forward to that game now. It is always nice to know there is probably a bit more at stake for Hearts than there is for HIbs.
“Hibs have obviously got the ongoing duel with Rangers for the Championship title and winning most weeks has been very important.
“You look at the Hibs team and it pretty much picks itself on a lot of occasions, although there are one or two areas where Alan can change it. Up front, he can now bring in Anthony Stokes, who gives them another option up top, but momentum is everything.
“It is exactly the same scenario that Northern Ireland faced in our last two campaigns. We drew three of the first four games in the World Cup campaign when we should have won two of them.
“The difference between going into game five with seven points instead of three points is huge in terms of the players, their motivation, focus, everything. So when you get that momentum – like we got in the Euro 2016 campaign by winning our first three games – it was like a different group of players almost.
“That is the biggest thing for Hibs. They have had that momentum, great runs where they have won 13, 14 weeks in a row and that just builds.
“It makes for an easier atmosphere in the stadium as well. Easter Road has been a more positive place for them to play. There was a period before Alan when it looked like the players dreaded playing for Hibs a bit.”
Stubbs’ insistence on accentuating the positive has, O’Neill argues, been crucial in removing that fear factor. “Now you have lads who are all keen to prove themselves,” he said. “The likes of Fraser Fyvie coming back up from England; the likes of Liam Henderson and Dylan McGeouch who have come from Celtic, McGeouch permanently, and John McGinn arriving from St Mirren.
“Going to Hibs has been a step up for them and they are all very keen to prove themselves. You see that in how they play. Alan has been very good at in his recruitment – he has been patient.
“When he first took the job, I felt he needed to change some players, but he was patient and made sure he got the right ones in.
“Ultimately, that has proven to be a big plus because what they now have is a young, hungry, energetic team, one that will certainly be confident of getting a win on Sunday.”
Like everyone with a connection to the club, O’Neill is annually reminded of the club’s failure to capture the Scottish Cup since 1902. However, he insists that history will not add to the pressure on Stubbs’ squad.
“It’s just a number and whether it’s 114 years or 150, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
“It’s a long time since they’ve won the Cup. Northern Ireland hadn’t won a friendly game for something like five years but I used to say: ‘I’ve only been in charge for two years!’
“This is Alan’s second year in charge. The long gap is a burden which the punters carry around with them but it won’t influence the Hibs players approach to the game at all.”
l Michael O’Neill was speaking at a William Hill media event yesterday. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.