Hibs are already on a high after re-igniting their Championship title hopes with Sunday’s victory over Rangers. So it would be a good time to secure the opportunity to banish the memories of one of manager Alan Stubbs’ lowest points at the club.
A win over Dundee United at Easter Road tonight will secure a place in the semi-final of another cup competition. Stubbs looked on with anguish last season as Hibs fell to Falkirk in the last-four stage of the Scottish Cup. It was particularly dispiriting given that he hoped to end Hibs’ especially poor record in this particular cup competition – Falkirk went on to lose to Inverness in the final.
“That was disappointing, there is no denying that,” he said, while reflecting on the 1-0 defeat. “But we’ve got a big job tomorrow to do first.” Getting back to Hampden would be another sign that Hibs are in the process of being re-invigorated under Stubbs.
Hibs’ relationship with the League Cup is not quite so toxic as the Scottish Cup – they lifted the former trophy as recently as 2007. But Stubbs was still making a point of not touching it yesterday as he posted for photographs prior to a meeting with the side currently sitting bottom of the Premiership. Hibs are now even cast as favourites to win tonight’s tie in some people’s eyes.
It is a far cry to just over a year ago when Hibs hosted United at the same stage of the same competition. The visitors were then sitting third in the league and though they had just lost to Inverness, then manager Jackie McNamara’s side were regarded as perhaps the most exciting in the country.
Hibs did well to match them but lost out on penalties after a thrilling 3-3 draw. Few could have foreseen what would befall United in the weeks and months to come. One consequence of their decline is that Mixu Paatelainen, not McNamara, will lead his players off their team bus this evening.
We have moved on, we’re a stronger team since that night but it doesn’t mean the result is going to be any different... unless we perform really well we won’t progress in the cupAlan Stubbs
Even though his players recorded their first home league win of the season on Saturday against Ross County, Paatelainen can only be wary of opponents who, despite their second-tier status, are one of the most in-form teams around. They are certainly a different proposition to the team United faced 12 months ago.
“We have moved on, we’re a stronger team since that night but it doesn’t mean the result is going to be any different,” said Stubbs. “It just means we are more capable of getting better results. But unless we perform really well we won’t progress in the cup.”
As well as being a popular striker for Hibs in two spells at the club, and a former manager at Easter Road, Paatelainen is a former team-mate of Stubbs at Bolton Wanderers, although they have crossed paths only rarely since then.
“I’ve seen him on a couple of occasions,” said Stubbs. “It’ll be great to see him tomorrow and get a catch-up after the game, hopefully after we’ve won the tie. He was a big favourite down there – he was big in every sense of the word; a big, strong guy and someone very difficult to play against in training. But he was a really lovely guy and a very good team-mate in what was a successful time at Bolton.”
The Hibs manager has opened his heart this week at his dismay at the state of the club when he arrived at Easter Road two summers ago.
If he had known just how little he had been left with after Terry Butcher’s sacking and the departure of several senior players he claims he would never accepted the post.
Stubbs has very different problems now to those he was confronted with on his arrival. He claims to have been left with just seven players. Even accounting for Dylan McGeouch’s absence tonight due to a groin injury, he has more than seven candidates for midfield places tonight alone.
“It was just where the club was at that moment in time,” he said. “The most important thing is where we are now and the board, chairman, Leeann [Dempster], everyone deserves a huge amount of credit because we’ve certainly made progress.
“Sometimes you have to be a little bit brave,” he added. “The instinct might have been to say: ‘we need to get as many people in as quickly as possible, we only have seven players’. But we took a step back from it all. We had a lot of names thrown at us but they were not right for us. They were not what I wanted to bring to the club to make us stronger. Eventually we started to get some people I wanted through the door. Slowly but surely the building progress was on its way.
“Every club that suffers a relegation is at a really low point and this club was no different. But the progress we’ve made on and off the pitch has been significant and a lot of people deserve a lot of credit for so much of the good work that has gone on behind the scenes.”
Stubbs was less inclined to offer Paatelainen, his old accomplice at Bolton, credit for handing Paul Hanlon, who scored Hibs’ winner on Sunday, his debut when the Finn was in charge at Easter Road. In a quirk of fate, Paatelainen’s return tonight will see Hanlon make his 250th appearance for Hibs – if selected. It is a particularly impressive achievement by the 25 year-old in view of the club’s instability in recent years and revolving-door policy with managers.
“He is still only young,” said Stubbs. “To have amassed 250 games especially at one club is great for Paul, and if he gets it tomorrow he should be very proud of himself – but he should be prouder if he progresses in the cup.
“He probably has a few managers to thank along the way, not just Mixu!” he added. “I will throw my name into the list of managers an’ all.”