In calculating Hibs have another 16 games left to play this season, Alan Stubbs yesterday awarded his side a Scottish Cup final place while also conceding the Championship title to Rangers.
It was certainly one way in which to move the discussion on from Hibs’ League Cup final defeat by Ross County. Of course, Stubbs, at least in terms of the Scottish Cup, was simply expressing what he fervently hoped lay in store for his side.
Some might contend even his forecast Hibs will be required to play four play-off matches is a case of wishful thinking. As it stands, they are in third place in the Championship, meaning they would need to negotiate three sets of play-off ties to secure their ultimate goal of promotion to the Premiership.
But while it might be stating the obvious to claim Rangers have a now unassailable lead at the top, it is the first time Stubbs has acknowledged it. There is, though, much else left to play for.
We will know by the end of tonight whether Hibs are on course to make it two finals in a single season – the answer is dependent on how they fare in their awkward Scottish Cup quarter-final replay at Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
But Stubbs, it seems, has now accepted the league title has slipped from their grasp.
Hibs are 17 points behind leaders Rangers but with a game in hand. They do, though, have only nine league games left. Hibs are not even the Ibrox club’s current closest challengers. With Stubbs’ side otherwise occupied in both national cup competitions, Falkirk have stolen ahead into second place, though they have played two games more.
“We have potentially 16 games left, if my calculations are right – nine in the league, I am hoping three in the Scottish Cup and I am hoping four in the play-offs,” said Stubbs yesterday. “I am not too bad at maths so yes, 16 games left. That is what we have to focus on. We have 16 games left and if we do what we want to do in them, we still have a lot ahead of us.”
The head coach wasted little time in sitting the players down yesterday to stress how much remains on offer. “We have a brief chat with the players and staff about how quickly we need to move on,” he said.
But John ‘Yogi’ Hughes would not be living up to his nickname were he to fail to scent blood ahead of tonight’s clash, which pitches wounded Hibs against the holders.
As a Leither, the Inverness manager knows how complicated – and usually agonising – Hibs’ relationship with the Scottish Cup has been. He will also understand how desperate they are to make amends for Sunday’s League Cup final defeat, something that could work in Inverness’ favour. Hibs being so conscious of the need to return to winning ways might well breed anxiety.
But Stubbs has urged his players to remember the sting of pain felt on Sunday and use it as motivation. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself or go away and bury your head in the sand,” he said. “You have to take defeat on the chin as well as victories.” Even if Hibs were wishing to try and forget all about Ross County then it would have been difficult considering their whereabouts tonight. Inverness is just 15 or so miles from Dingwall, where the League Cup now resides.
But in order to “move on” – as Stubbs requested – this is where Hibs are headed. Defeat tonight in Inverness cannot be borne if they are to stop people viewing their recent troubles as verging close to all-out collapse.
“I’m aware of it, but I’m not alarmed by it,” said Stubbs, when asked whether he was concerned the good work in the majority of the season is now at risk of being undone. “We are better than what our last five games have been, but we know we want to get back on track very, very quickly.”
Understandably, Stubbs preferred to accentuate the positives yesterday.
Would he have taken this set of circumstances – losing League Cup finalists, Scottish Cup quarter-final replay in Inverness and third place in Championship, albeit with games in hand – before a ball was kicked last summer? Yes, he answered, he would.
“I think if there was any manager sitting in this chair right now and that was what was offered them before a ball was kicked they’d have snapped your hand off,” he said.
“We’ve done really well to now. We have got to a major final, we are in the quarter-final of the Scottish Cup and – at the moment – we are sitting third, but with our games in hand we can be second. And we still have a chance of going up through the play-offs. I think that’s progress.”