ALAN Stubbs has received reassurance from Robbie Neilson that Hearts will do everything in their power to finish the season in a style befitting of their triumphant campaign.
Normally, such a pledge would be of little consequence to the manager of Hibernian. But because Hearts are due to play Rangers twice in their last six league matches, with the first of these meetings coming at Ibrox on Sunday, Stubbs happily declared an interest in how their rivals continue to react after being crowned league champions.
“They’re professional footballers and once they cross that white line it’s very difficult to down tools”Alan Stubbs on Hearts
Last Saturday’s 2-0 triumph over Queen of the South is a pointer to how Hearts will approach things over the course of the next few weeks. Despite already knowing that the league title was wrapped up after Hibs’ defeat by Rangers six days earlier, Neilson’s side were firmly in control against a team with everything still to play for.
Stubbs hopes Hibs can do what a freewheeling Hearts side managed last weekend against Queen of the South by gaining maximum points against their play-off place rivals. If so, the pressure transfers to Rangers, who will then need to win the next day against Hearts to keep pace with Hibs in the race for second spot.
Some Hibs fans are questioning whether the Tynecastle side might subconsciously clock off at Ibrox, knowing their fight has already been fought. But Stubbs has no fears on that front. In a phone conversation with Neilson the morning after Hearts’ championship triumph had been confirmed, Stubbs gained an insight into the Hearts manager’s admirable professionalism.
“I think Robbie has got his own targets and he’s come out and said they want to get 99 points,” said Stubbs. “They’ve been brilliant. I spoke to Robbie last Monday morning after our game and congratulated him.
“They have won the league in a canter in the end and I know they do want to finish it with real aplomb and finish it on 99 points if they can,” he added. “They’re professional footballers and once they cross that white line it’s very difficult to down tools.
“They’re on the crest of a wave and their confidence is sky high. I don’t see that being any different and as players you want to go to big grounds and get big results.” Asked whether he will go to the game at Ibrox, Stubbs replied that he imagined he would – “they’ve actually treated me quite well recently the Rangers fans,” he smiled. But he is also aware that it is not about what Hearts can or cannot do on Sunday, it is about how Hibs cope with the challenge of Queen of the South, as well as other subsequent tests.
Indeed, the coming nine days are pivotal in the race for second place – Hibs have three games, as do Rangers. Hibs fans worry that successive defeats by Rangers and Raith Rovers have signalled a mini-slump. But Stubbs is comfortable with their form.
The loss to Rangers was a bad day at the office. According to the manager, last weekend’s reversal to Raith was a travesty of justice. He disputes the suggestion from some that things are beginning to go awry.
“I have no qualms whatsoever, the wheels haven’t fallen off like some people are writing,” he said. “I’m actually very happy with the way the team are playing because I know they’re in the right place and ready for the end of the season.”
He reiterated his contention that Hibs should have taken all three points last Saturday against Raith, rather than lose 2-1. Stubbs suggested that even the Kirkcaldy side’s manager Grant Murray was embarrassed to have walked away with a win after being put under such severe pressure by the visitors.
“I think that’s the best we’ve played for six weeks,” said Stubbs. “We lost the game and it was disappointing but it seemed to give me my spark back. I knew the players were back on it again.
“Sometimes in football you see games and you think, ‘how on earth did they get beat?’ One of them was last week.” The biggest giveaway is when you go into the opposition management room. Grant is a good guy and all his staff are really good. There was a little bit of: ‘how on earth have we won that?’
“That’s football, we know it can happen but I thought we were very good,” he added. “We hit the crossbar, we hit the post, we had one cleared off the line. David Gray could have scored a hat-trick and that’s allowing for a couple of other opportunities as well.”
Stubbs stressed that Hibs are still firmly on target to meet their ambitions. “From where we were at the start of the season, our main target was to finish in the play-offs,” he said. “Everyone thought Rangers would win the league, Hearts would finish second and we would finish third. The top two is not what everybody said, and it could be different come 2 May. We want to finish in second. Some people might see that as being arrogant but what is the point of coming here and not being honest?
“I wanted to finish first but does that make me over-confident? No it doesn’t, it’s the reality. We’re ambitious as a group.
“There is a lot of water to go under the bridge before the end of the season, a lot of twists and turns.”
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