Now that Hibernian have avoided the considerable feat of surrendering the league title in November, the trick is to keep breathing.
Alan Stubbs scoffed at the suggestion his team were involved in a title play-off before the play-offs against Rangers on Sunday. But he could afford to do so after his team’s thrilling victory. The battle to maintain Hibs’ championship lifeline begins again against St Mirren on Saturday.
Hibs have another game to take care of before they can think about travelling to Paisley with the aim of posting a sixth consecutive league win. Dundee United’s arrival tomorrow night for a League Cup quarter-final tie could actually be a godsend.
It means the Easter Road side are not fixated on this weekend’s return to league action, when the pressure is on to avoid the pitfall many of their fans fear.
United are a welcome distraction before Stubbs’ side travel to face Ian Murray’s troubled St Mirren.
But it says everything about the invigorating properties of Saturday’s victory that Hibs fans are already tempted to look beyond such an attractive cup quarter-final assignment towards a trip to Paisley. But they do so with an understandable mix of excitement and trepidation.
For as long as we all live, and that is hopefully for a long time yet, a team will never win a title in NovemberAlan Stubbs
For Hibs fans are already alert to the warning signs; a team in desperate need of a league win who cost their side two points the last time they played. On top of this they are led by a former Hibs favourite, one who yesterday saw his assistant manager, Mark Spalding, leave the club, “by mutual consent”. There is enough here to give any self-respecting Hibee the heebie-jeebies.
A defeat by St Mirren would be hard to bear after the high of Sunday’s 2-1 win, when Stubbs’ side rose to the occasion in a way Hibs teams have not always been known for doing. Rather, they are mocked for being the ultimate bottle merchants; a decent football team when the pressure is off. But, when the stakes are high, forget it.
The accusation has long riled Stubbs. He relished the chance to be wryly self-deprecating after the final whistle on Sunday. He noted the victory had kept Hibs in the title equation – for another few days at least. “It just keeps it going,” he shrugged.
Hibs’ next meeting with Rangers, on 28 December at Ibrox, is just six league games away. It is hard to see how they can maintain their winning form until then. Stubbs knows that just as Hibs can draw nearer their rivals before then, and, perhaps, even overtake them, they can also fall further behind.
Hibs have now strung together a run of ten victories – nine in the league, one in the cup – and a draw since losing 1-0 to Rangers in August. That one draw, representing a depressing setback at the time, came against St Mirren, this weekend’s opponents.
But Hibs have battled back to take another bite out of the gap between them and Rangers, reducing it to five points.
“It just keeps us going,” said Stubbs on Sunday. “For if we hadn’t won today it was finished – or so I was told!” The Hibs manager was never going to agree with those contending that Sunday’s clash with Rangers represented a must-win game.
He was right to seem incredulous at the suggestion. “For as long as we all live, and that is hopefully for a long time yet, a team will never win a title in November in any league in the world,” he said after the final whistle.
But he knows overcoming a difference of 11 points is a tall order. Not just because it is a large gap, but also because a win for Rangers over their nearest rivals would have bolstered their confidence and hardened the conviction they are champions-elect. But now Mark Warburton’s side have been tasked with responding to a first league defeat of the season.
There is some delicious needle developing between the teams. Warburton’s contention that “respectfully, there was only one team in it” in the second half is bound to irk Stubbs further. He sounded narked enough on Sunday. “Mark’s entitled to his opinion,” he said. “But we’ve won the game and that’s the most important thing.”
Stubbs even suggested it was Rangers’ own fault that they allowed Hibs back in after seeming to take control at the start of the second half. “When you are a team that is very expansive you are going to leave opportunities and space – we were good enough to exploit it.
“We deserve a little bit of credit,” he added. Indeed they do. But Stubbs knows the acclaim can quickly turn to howls of frustration from their fans if they fail to secure a win on Saturday.
Judging by their resilience against Rangers, there is no reason why they can’t claim another three points – perhaps having also secured a League Cup semi-final berth for good measure.