It wouldn’t have done for the end of the regulation Scottish Championship season to have passed without gentle jibes being exchanged between managers. With Alan Stubbs at the Hibernian helm, that was never going to happen.
As seemed often the case with his Rangers counterpart Mark Warburton earlier in the season, yesterday Stubbs picked words that some will choose to interpret as picking a fight with Falkirk manager Peter Houston. A man who, it must be said, appears to have been keen to have nip in his direction this week.
Houston took the hump at the Hibs manager suggesting that the pressure was on Falkirk ahead of tomorrow’s final-day climax in which the two teams are vying for a second place which would guarantee two fewer games in the play-offs which will follow in the next three weeks.
If Falkirk are victorious at home to Morton, then Hibs need to beat Queen of the South by three goals more than Falkirk’s winning margin to claim runners-up spot in the second tier. A position that would give them some recuperation time before entering, at the semi-final stage, play-offs that reach their conclusion either side of the Scottish Cup final which the Easter Road club will contest against Rangers on 21 May.
Houston said this week he was under so much pressure he went for a game of golf at St Andrews and shot the round of his life, with “three birdies and five pars – not bad for an 18-handicapper”. Stubbs couldn’t let that pass but rejected that he was on the wind-up in essentially saying the onus was on Falkirk to claim second place.
“I don’t think it’s a wind-up at all,” said the Leith club’s manager. “If you look at what I’ve said, it’s not a wind-up. Far from it. I’m glad he had a good game of golf. He needs to check his handicap if he’s off 18. He’s getting three birdies and five pars. I’d like to be in their position. I’m not going to get involved in pressure or anything like that. I’m a quick learner. For a novice, I’m a quick learner.”
Stubbs, though, couldn’t resist another veiled pop at Houston, who has talked often of the budgetary and player-number advantages the Hibs manager has over him. That came when he descended into heavy sarcasm after musing on the possible line-up for tomorrow’s game on the back of a changed side – minus top scorer Jason Cummings – registering a 4-0 win over Dumbarton in midweek.
“I’ve got to say, no-one is a given on the team sheet,” he said, Dylan McGeough in contention after recovering from a groin problem that has kept him out for almost two months. “The ones who came in during the week have done themselves no harm whatsoever. We’re getting to a stage now where it’s not on what you’ve done. It’s about form and players coming into form. We need players who are on top of their game. We’ve got a good squad. We have a squad which is not massively bigger than any other team in the division, believe it or not. We’ve got one more player. That’s a huge difference. That’s a huge squad.”
In terms of a huge difference, consider the contrast between how Hibs’ season will be judged if they both win the Scottish Cup and earn promotion, or fail in these pursuits. That doesn’t sit comfortably with Stubbs. Yet, with the second-biggest football spend in the Championship, the club should be good for the play-off final, at worst.
“I just can’t see people’s perceptions of getting to two cup finals and reaching the play-offs being a glass half empty,” he said. “If we had only reached the play-offs and not got to the cup finals then I could maybe see that, but to be in the play-offs and reach two cup finals, is that not a measurement of doing well?
“Our aim from the outset – we have exceeded that. To get to two cup finals is something no-one expected.
“Our first aim was to win promotion. We knew that was going to be a big ask with Rangers in the league. But our pre-season ambitions were to go up as champions. If not, then go through the play-offs. We’ve done that by getting into the play-offs, and we’re capable of doing well in it. But the play-offs are designed in such a way that it can become a little bit of a lottery.
“If you look at what we’ve got, we will finish on the same points total – potentially – as we did last year, when we finished second. And last year we were a considerable amount ahead of the teams in third and fourth. Was that us doing really well or other teams not doing so well? You don’t know. But I don’t look at whether we finish second, third or fourth as a success or failure – because second, third and fourth basically gets you the same thing. All one does is get you a little bit more rest.”