Perhaps surprisingly in a season that has not always gone their way, Hibernian have been unable to score in just one home game to date.
But they know that, if they suffer another goalless afternoon against Raith Rovers today, their Premiership dream will be over for another season. Failure to find the net is not an option. Indeed, Hibs ideally need to score at least twice, while at the same time keeping a clean sheet, to progress to next week’s play-off semi-final against Falkirk without the need for penalties.
According to Ray McKinnon, the Raith Rovers manager, Easter Road will be a nervous enough place without the additional anxiety of a penalty shoot-out. He is banking on Raith being able to turn the home fans against their team by resisting Hibs’ efforts to ease these supporters’ fears by getting the first goal.
Stubbs, in response, has preached patience. But he has no worries on that score since the Hibs fans have stood by the team time and time again this season. But he hopes they will be as good as ever today, suggesting a deal to the fans: you bring your A-game, the players will bring theirs. Even if the game is not going Hibs’ way at half-time, he has asked supporters not to fret.
“You are going to have to be patient,” he said. “The fans have got a huge part to play tomorrow, when I say huge I mean a big, big part.”
He was amused to hear that McKinnon had sought to heap pressure on Hibs by noting how desperately they want to get out of the division. The Raith manager wondered if the nervy atmosphere in the home stands could potentially suffocate the players.
“People talk about coming here and frustrating the team and ensuring that seeps into the crowd, and how that can have a negative effect,” said Stubbs. “Let me flip that on its head. What about the positive effect when fans are really behind the team, as they have been all season, making Easter Road a hostile, intimidating place tomorrow? Let’s see the opposite side, let’s see how the opposition deals with that.”
Stubbs was confident the Hibs fans will be able to see through McKinnon’s mind games. The Raith manager’s bid to paint them as a frustrated, impatient group, liable to turn on their own players, was a ham-fisted attempt to cause unrest, one, he was sure, doomed to failure.
“The fans are not soft, especially the fans at Easter Road,” said Stubbs. “They are football fans, they know what they want to see. Tomorrow, if the fans bring their A-game as well as the team, let’s show the opposition how difficult a place Easter Road can be.”
It isn’t often these fans have endured a goalless 90 minutes from Hibs at home. Only once this season has it happened – against Morton last month, in a shock 3-0 defeat.
While Hibs recorded 2-0 and 4-0 victories in their last two Easter Road outings, numerous chances also went a-begging. Stubbs accepts his players will need to have their shooting boots on today, including Jason Cummings, who missed a great chance to put Hibs ahead against Raith on Wednesday night and was yesterday linked with a £1 million summer move to Wolves.
Despite being an ardent Evertonian, Stubbs took heart from Liverpool reaching the Europa League final by overcoming a 1-0 deficit against Villarreal at Anfield on Thursday, when they were roared on by home fans. “If you’re the opposition who has the 1-0 lead, you’re happy you’ve got it,” he said. “If you’re us, and you haven’t got it, you know it’s easily clawed back. If you asked Raith if they would like to be going to Easter Road with a bigger lead than 1-0, I think I know what the answer would be.
“People can put as much spin on it as they want. The tie is wide open, it really is. We’ll see what happens after 90 minutes or 120 minutes.”
Just as crucial as scoring is keeping things tight at the back. Conrad Logan looks likely to retain the No 1 shirt, something Stubbs concedes has left regular goalkeeper Mark Oxley “disappointed”. Loyalty, he suggested, can only go so far.
“Conrad was a call that I made and it was a difficult one,” said Stubbs. “He’s come in and done very well. Right now, where we are, there’s an element of trust and faith but players have got to be on form.
“At this stage of the season, it’s about form players – ones who I think for this game or that game is the right call.
“I felt that it was the right call during the week,” he added. “It was a really tough call but I felt it was the right one. It’s unfortunate from Mark’s point of view. Yes, he’s disappointed. He has every right to be, but my decisions are not personal at all. They’re done in the best interests of the team.”