Alan Stubbs has been in this particular movie before. A team struggling for confidence pulling out all the stops to secure an unlikely away win after an inconsistent period of form that included a defeat at Queen of the South. These were the circumstances when his own Hibs side defeated Rangers at Ibrox in September.
Back then Hibs’ form was causing a degree of panic among the faithful. Four defeats from their opening six league matches wasn’t what was expected from a side freshly deposited in the league from the top flight.
However, compared with Rangers, they were having to cope with only mild troubles off the field, as a consortium led by financial analyst David Low, among others, sought to buy out Sir Tom Farmer. Though there are still moves afoot by supporters’ organisations to tempt Farmer, this particular bid had already failed by the time Hibs went to Ibrox on a Monday evening and won 3-1, having been three goals up at half-time. The result re-ignited their faltering season.
Stubbs knows that a Rangers side facing their first match without Ally McCoist as manager will be desperate to prove something. Their players have already been challenged by Kenny McDowall, now in charge of first-team affairs, to win the league title – “for Ally”. In order for them to do that, they will almost certainly have to start putting a degree of pressure on Hearts by winning against Hibs today in the early lunchtime kick-off.
So it was no surprise to hear Stubbs warn his players about the ‘wounded animal’ scenario prior to this afternoon’s clash, which has been elevated to game-of-the-day status due as much to the intriguing context in which it is set as anything else. How will Rangers react after another emotional week at the Ibrox club? Can Hibs build on winning back-to-back league games for the first time this season, thereby inching closer to Rangers in second place? “Rangers could be dangerous,” Stubbs noted. “Everyone will say, ‘This is a chance to capitalise on Rangers’ problems and they are vulnerable’.
“Well, you know what they say about a wounded animal,” he added. “That’s what we need to be wary of. They are a fantastic club and they still have some very good international players there. We won’t be underestimating them. What’s gone on has gone on, but the players will be getting told by Kenny [McDowall] not to let things off the pitch affect things on the pitch. We won’t be kidded on. What’s going on at Rangers is irrelevant to us.
“We are going to hit them the same way we would if they had won eight games on the bounce,” added Stubbs, with Rangers’ record currently a long way from that (they have lost three of their last seven matches). “Regardless of a new manager or whatever, our approach is exactly the same,” he added. “There’s no difference. If we win the game and people want to use the situation at Rangers as a reason, then so be it, but I want the end result to be three points.”
Stubbs has noted certain aspects of Rangers’ play he will endeavour to take advantage of as Hibs seek to draw to within four points of their opponents today. As well as that victory over the Ibrox side in September, Hibs were unfortunate to lose a League Cup tie at the ground in Stubbs’ first match in charge.
“Like when we went to Ibrox twice early in the season, there are things we have seen and things we will work on,” he said. “Kenny will be coming into the job and thinking exactly the same thing. He’ll be looking at areas his team could hurt us, and it has the makings of a really top game and one which will have an affect on both teams’ aspirations.”
Whatever happens this afternoon, there is set to be a quick re-match – Hibs play only another five league matches, including next week against Hearts, before they face Rangers again, in mid-February. By then, who knows where they might be?
Could they be back on Hearts’ tails, helped by successive victories over Rangers and then their city rivals during the festive period? Or might they be simply seeking to maintain a place in the top four, something they might have been happy to settle for back in the opening weeks of the campaign, when they were left nearer bottom than top. Stubbs is clearly hoping it’s the former case.
“The games are a big test, a big challenge and a big opportunity,” he said. “We have a great chance to eat into the gap to both Rangers and Hearts. That’s what we have to look to do over the festive period.
“We find ourselves up against our two biggest rivals, which a lot of people might think are two really tough fixtures,” Stubbs added. “I think they are great fixtures. Rangers at home will be a terrific challenge. Hopefully it will be a big crowd there on Saturday to roar us on and we are focusing on getting three points.
“It is quite straightforward to stay focused on ourselves. We can’t change what is happening at Rangers. It is what it is. But it is totally outwith our control, it has nothing to do with us. It doesn’t involve me or my players. Their focus and mindset should just be getting a result on Saturday and how we can beat Rangers.”