THE SPFL really missed a trick in failing to have the Premiership play-offs sponsored by AG Barr. Outside of the soft drinks makers, bottle has rarely created such a fizz as has been case ahead of Rangers hosting Hibernian in the first leg of their play-off semi-final tonight.
In the footballing argot, a team’s nerve, mettle or mental fortitude rarely come under discussion. What wins or loses tight contests is whether players have/show the required “bottle”. Pundits and former pros tend to take hefty swigs to arrive at their conclusions and that is what Alex McLeish, who has managed all three of the teams that remain in the top flight play-offs, did yesterday. The 56-year-old was unequivocal in saying that the match-up between Rangers and Hibs, who will meet twice in the next four days for the right to face Motherwell in the final, will be no less than a battle of the bottle.
McLeish, pursuing his options this summer having completed a stint with Belgian club Genk, believes that Hibs could be considered slight favourites – if assessing the tie purely on footballing form this season. If bringing stature into the equation, then he would give Rangers the edge. Likewise, with bottle. And that is despite the fact this season, for the first time in their history, Hibs racked up three consecutive victories over the Ibrox side before losing their final encounter, in which Alan Stubbs was pitted against Stuart McCall for the first time.
“I think it is going to come down to that bottle between the two teams on the big stage,” McLeish said. “I do think Hibs have to prove themselves, and prove to themselves, when it comes to having big-game mentality. I can go way back to my Aberdeen days when we went down to Glasgow and Alex Ferguson kept saying ‘look we have to get over that hurdle of getting a first against the Old Firm in their own backyard’. That will get you off and running. I think there is an element of that with the current Hibs side.
“Rangers still have a lot of players there who can deliver, in terms of experience, and who have been through that bottle factor that we speak about. They have a certain amount of ingredients, though they haven’t quite shown the quality. Guys like Kenny [Miller] and [Kris] Boyd are in the twilight of their careers but they do have that wealth of experience and have shown a winning mentality. With the Hibs guys, they have to prove they have that.”
Yet, McLeish would accept that it shouldn’t be such a hard sell for Stubbs to convince his players they have what it takes to be uncorking bottles in celebration come the end of this month. “For both teams the Championship has been topsy-turvy as Hearts ran away with it,” he said. “Watching the two of them it is so hard to predict a winner. The ‘big if’ factor relates to their consistency. Losing the Scottish Cup semi-final was a crushing blow to them but looking at the evidence of the games between the sides so far [is how you would look to persuade Hibs players they can do it].
“Yes, Rangers beat them in the last one at Easter Road. You have to go over the evidence over the whole season and brainwash the guys into seeing that evidence that they have been able to deal with Rangers at certain moments of the season. They couldn’t do it in the last game of the season, though, and that leaves a big question and where it could be advantage Rangers.”
A spot of tactical tinkering helped McCall guide his men to a 2-0 victory in Leith two months ago. It seemed then he would lead the Ibrox side into second on their way to top-flight promotion that would guarantee him the post on a long-term basis. Now his prospects seem shrouded in uncertainty.
“There is a modern-day trend affecting managers in terms of the fickle, social media world we live in – and I have found myself in a position a couple of times in recent years because of it,” said McLeish. “Results are demanded from day one. I know Stuart hasn’t been installed as manager [permanently] yet but will be in the mix. The way that football is you get judged game-to-game. If they don’t do well in this first game he will be a dud, and if they win the second game everyone will want him given the job.
“It is the Mike Bassett England Manager type scenario and that scene at the end of the film where he comes back on to the tarmac to tell everyone he is quitting, then sees 10,000 fans waiting on him and says ‘I’m signing a new four-year deal’.” No doubt that took a lot of bottle from Bassett.
• BT Sport is showing every Premiership play-off game exclusively live, including both legs of the semi-final between Rangers and Hibernian on BT Sport 1. Coverage of the first leg starts at 7pm tonight with the second leg live from 11:30am on Saturday 23 May.’