WITH seven league defeats on the spin, one manager binned and a new boss yet to bed in, Ross County are the type of opponent that any team would welcome right now. Anyone, that is, except perhaps Hibernian, who are in more or less as dire a plight as the club they visit tonight in the third round of the League Cup.
Granted, Hibs have two wins to their name in the Championship, but their condition under Alan Stubbs has yet to look any healthier than it was when Terry Butcher was in charge. Those victories, against Livingston and Cowdenbeath, were achieved thanks to a goalkeeper’s long clearance and a 94th-minute winner respectively. Their other positive result, in the previous round of the League Cup, was the 3-2 fightback against Dumbarton.
Every defeat suffered by Stubbs’s club has also been by a single goal – evidence, he believes, that they are not far from turning the corner. But the fact remains that, largely against more lowly opponents, Hibs have rarely looked comfortably in control of a game.
“The frustrating thing about it is there’s nothing in the games that we’ve lost,” Stubbs said yesterday. “It could easily have flipped on its head and gone our way. But we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We know it’s just a matter of time before that falls on our side. We’ve got to keep doing the right things more often than not, and if we keep doing that we’ll have a better chance of winning games. At the moment we’re making one mistake and we’re getting punished and we know that only ourselves can change that.
“So we’re determined as a group. The lads are upbeat, even though the results have not really reflected what we should have got out of them, and we’re determined to get it right. The confidence is there, we believe in what we’re doing, and as long as that’s there they’ll have a good opportunity and it will change sooner rather than later.”
One positive aspect of tonight’s game from Hibs’ point of view is the probability that Ross County will come out and attack for at least part of the contest. That should give the visitors more space than they have found in some league games, where opponents have packed their defence and allowed Stubbs’s side to stroke the ball around to little effect in midfield.
Stubbs expects the Dingwall club to be favourites, but said he was not concerned with lessening any burden of expectation on his own players. “We must be [underdogs],” he said. “We’re playing Premiership opposition; they’re at home. Maybe we would look at that differently if we were at home, but I would still say they’re Premiership opposition we’re facing and the onus is on them at home to go through the tie.
“As a player you want pressure all the time to go into a game, to go in and win whether we’re home or away. When you’re at big clubs there’s always a pressure there. But I think, as a player, you want that, you want to be at the big clubs where there’s a pressure to always win – and it’s no different here. Players have to deal with it: that’s why we sign them, and the ones who cope with that can improve as individuals and get better.”
There were more than a few players at Easter Road last season who could not cope with the pressure of a relegation fight, in which one of the most memorable matches was a 1-0 win by Ross County over Hibs that preserved the home club’s Premiership place. Stubbs is aware that the longer the present poor run of results goes on, the more the pressure will increase on him, but he is confident that improvement is imminent, and has no worries about handling the demands of his first job in management.
While refusing to be drawn on reports of an imminent loan return to the club for Leigh Griffiths, Stubbs added: “I believe in what I’m doing. There’s always a pressure. There’s a pressure to winning as well as losing – it’s not just a one-way thing. When you’re winning it’s much easier, but there’s a pressure to keep improving all the time.
“Obviously I believe the results need to keep getting better, but from a pressure point of view I believe in the players. And as long as they keep seeing me believing, it will turn.
“Pressure – playing at the top for 20 years. Is that not pressure as well? I dealt with it then, so I don’t see any reason why I can’t deal with it now. If you play in front of 60,000-stadiums or 80,000-seater stadiums, I would say that was pressure. You can’t just have it when it’s good and then not deal with it when it’s not so good.
“If that’s what it is then bring it on. We’ve got a good fight, then. How can I not enjoy coming into work? And training with a group of lads who give it their all every day? How can I not enjoy that? If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t be here. If I didn’t enjoy this side of it I wouldn’t have even applied for the job.”