The tenth meeting between Hibernian and Rangers, or indeed any two teams, in the space of just 14 months would normally prompt the cry: “Too much!”
But not when the game in question has a “cup final” quality about it. Not when there is the potential – according to some at least – for one team’s title ambitions to be sunk in a single afternoon.
I like his edge. He is someone who keeps you on your toes and is wittyStubbs on Cummings
Although the clocks have only just gone back, Hibs manager Alan Stubbs knows many are viewing this particular clash as the pivotal one in the Championship title race. It is some people’s contention that unless Hibs win this weekend, the Easter Road side’s title hopes will have gone up in flames before Guy Fawkes night.
Stubbs himself is not among this group, of course. But he does concede he is desperate that the gap of eight points between his own team and Rangers is not allowed to grow any bigger.
They have only recently cut it down to eight so, he argues, even if Hibs lose tomorrow, the consequences are not ruinous. But these games are the ones that provide the opportunity to gain some ground on their opponents – or, in the case of leaders Rangers, secure some more breathing space.
The enormity of what is at stake means few involved with both teams can escape being caught up in the fervour, despite the regularity with which the teams have met in recent times. This is their third match already in this current campaign.
They played each other seven times last season – including a two-legged play-off, in which Hibs lost out to Rangers, who in turn went on to lose out to Motherwell. It is the wish to avoid this misery again that is motivating both teams to make sure they finish top and secure automatic promotion.
Only two scheduled league clashes between the teams will remain after around 2:20pm tomorrow. With Hibs having already lost to Rangers in the league, as well as being heavily beaten in a Petrofac Training Cup fixture, a further loss tomorrow will likely prove damaging to morale as well as worsening their position in respect to challenging Rangers.
But despite these high stakes, Stubbs has relished the countdown. He was given every reason to step back from the suffocating pressure on Thursday, when he spent a day away from the East Mains training centre to attend Everton great Howard Kendall’s emotionally-charged funeral in Liverpool.
Arriving just before the service, Stubbs wasn’t able to catch a word with fellow attendee and former Everton team-mate David Weir, who will be in the opposite dugout tomorrow as assistant manager to Mark Warburton. “There’s not a lot we can say anyway,” said Stubbs. “I want to win, he wants to win. It’s game-mode.”
As an arch competitor, Stubbs adores these conditions. They sharpen his edges and improve his own performance levels, as well as those of his players, all of whom are fit and raring to go. He is convinced that together they can secure the victory so many believe is absolutely crucial.
“Whenever you play in any big game you should savour it, embrace it, and you obviously want to win the games,” said Stubbs. “Whatever line of work you are in when the big challenges come around they give you a buzz.
“I’ve had the buzz since last Sunday waiting for this game and I am really looking forward to it. I hope it brings out the best in me as we want to get three points. I think we can get a result against Rangers, in fact, I know we can.”
“It would be wrong of me to try to dismiss it,” he said, when asked if he agreed these fixtures with Rangers are potentially-season defining. “We don’t want the gap to get any bigger. That’s stating the obvious. We’ve not worried about the gap previously, we’ve worried about performances. We’ve focused on performances. And, because of that, we’ve given ourselves a chance on Sunday to try and get a result against Rangers.”
Hibs are the form team going into the clash, perhaps surprisingly. Since losing to Rangers in August, they have won nine of their ten games, including against Aberdeen in the League Cup, and drawn the other. Rangers have lost once since then – to St Johnstone.
Stubbs contends Rangers are comfortably better than last season – “I would be a clown to say otherwise,” he said. But so are Hibs, despite the loss of Scott Allan, something many feared would derail them completely.
Stubbs has since worked well in the transfer market after strong backing from the Easter Road board to the extent that it is now debatable who has the stronger squad – Hibs or Rangers.
Stubbs’ hopes could hinge on someone he agreed can be compared to former Hibs striker Leigh Griffiths in terms of background, swagger and appetite for goals. Jason Cummings already looks well on the way to bettering last season’s total of 21 goals after scoring ten in his first 15 outings this time around.
“Jason is a personality and I like that,” he said. “I don’t want players to say the same things and be monotone. I like his edge. He is someone who keeps you on your toes and is witty. Most importantly I like him as a striker because he scores goals.”
Stubbs is relieved there is no Allan-shaped cloud hanging over the fixture, as there was in the previous two meetings with Rangers. The Ibrox club lost out to Celtic in their protracted bid to sign the then Hibs midfielder, who originally sought to engineer a move to Rangers.
“It doesn’t mean we will necessarily win the game,” said Stubbs. “But it’s good from a club point of view that it has drifted into the background and we’ve certainly moved on since then.
“You only need to look at our performances since it all happened. I think we are unbeaten. It was initially a negative issue, because he [Allan] was a good player and one we didn’t want to lose. But we’ve had a really positive response from the players we have brought in. I said it then and I’ll say it now: ‘We are a better team’.”
But being better than Hibs were last season is not the issue. Being better than Rangers are now is. Much will be revealed tomorrow.