ALAN Stubbs yesterday refused to accept that his Hibernian side were under pressure as they prepare for six play-off games to secure promotion.
Faced with an elongated path to the Premiership following Sunday’s failure to overhaul in Falkirk in second place in the Championship, the head coach could have been forgiven for betraying the worries of managing a club which has turned disappointment into an art form in recent times.
Yet, in the shadow of the Forth bridges, as he surveyed tomorrow’s quarter-final first-leg against Raith Rovers, Stubbs said: “Stressful? When you have got the opportunity to achieve something, I don’t see it as stressful.
“Stressful is when you are trying to stay away from relegation.
“Stressful is when you have the possibility of going down and people are affected by it, in terms of wages being cut, people losing their jobs. That’s stressful.
“I think this is exciting. I look at as as chance to achieve something. That can’t be stressful – I think it’s brilliant.”
Stubbs will be keeping his fingers crossed that his players feel the same way. They fell at the final hurdle, in the final few seconds, of their League Cup campaign paign last month, the most high-profile occasion when their wits have been tested so far this season. In addition, they proved unable to cope with the demands of sustaining a challenge to Rangers at the summit of the Championship.
However, they have risen to the occasion frequently in recent months, taking the scalps of a quintet of
Premiership teams in cup competitions. Aberdeen, Hearts, Inverness Caley Thistle, St Johnstone and Dundee United, twice, have all been conquered when the chips have been down in one-off, knock-out matches, and that is cause for optimism, according Stubbs.
“When we have played against Premiership teams in the big cup games, the players have always responded,” he said.
“If anything, some of our best performances have been in those games. I don’t expect anything different in these matches.”
It may not induce many fond memories, but Hibs are becoming a dab hand at end-of-season play-offs. Suffering relegation from the Premiership and failed to bounce straight back up in the last two seasons, the Easter Road outfit will be hopeful it is a case of third time lucky.
Having been the top-flight team waiting for the second-tier battle to play out and then the side finishing the league in second spot, having to start the play-offs right at the beginning will be new for Hibs.
Considering the penalty
-kicks defeat to Hamilton Accies and the 2-1 aggregate loss in the semi-final against Rangers 12 months ago, that may be no bad thing.
However, Stubbs believes those previous disappointments are ones the players can draw on as they attempt to overcome a hectic fixture schedule that will see them play seven matches – including the Scottish Cup final – in just three weeks.
“You have to learn from every experience,” he added. “Last year, we go to Ibrox and it’s a close game.
“It was the same at Easter Road. No matter what, I think all the games in this season’s play-offs are going to be close games.
“We are happy with the way we are going into them and happy with our form, but we know we are going to have to perform very well to come through.”
That form may not have been good enough to secure the runners-up place that everyone at Hibs craved but it has still seen the Easer Road side register an undefeated run of six games as they head for Stark’s Park, a venue where they lost 2-1 just last month. That provides Stubbs, who insists his team will aim to win both legs of a “tough” tie, with further
confidence that his charges can stave off any impending weariness to prevail.
“We’ve got some youth in the team and we’ve been playing Saturday-Wednesday for a number of weeks now,” he said. “And, I’ve got to say, over the last four weeks, we haven’t looked like a team that’s necessarily looked tired. If anything I think they’ve looked sharp and bright again.”