Hibernian legend Jackie McNamara has warned Easter Road manager Terry Butcher and his players that, for the sake of their sanity, the relegation play-off must be avoided.
McNamara was a key participant the last time Hibs were involved in the sudden-death drama against Airdrie 17 years ago and still considers it to be his worst experience in football, even though the Easter Road side eventually won.
Considering he was assistant manager when the club began the descent into relegation the following year – and that he was also in the team, along with George Best, which went down in 1980 – it speaks volumes about the tension these games generate.
Now a season-ticket holder, McNamara does not want to be put through that emotional wringer again as a fan at the end of this season.
Back in 1997, a crowd of 15,308 saw Hibs win the first leg at home by 1-0, courtesy of a Steve Cooper own goal.
Trailing by the same score at half-time in the second leg in front of 6,275 fans at Broadwood, the visitors rallied after the break, when two Darren Jackson penalties and further goals by Paul Tosh and Keith Wright rendered Kenny Black’s late goal no more than a consolation for the Diamonds.
“Jim Duffy was the manager and I was his No 2 at the time,” said McNamara. “It’s hard to describe just how emotional those games – and the build-up to them – were. It was as bad as it gets, easily my worst experience in football. The pressure on everybody concerned – but especially the team from the top division – is immense.
“We were relegated the next year, although Duff and I left the club in February, and I also went down as a player but the play-offs were far more tense than either of those. It’s impossible to enjoy.”
Hibs are the lowest-scoring side in the Premiership. They’ve scored just 11 goals in their 16 league games away from home. They’ve won only one of their past 14 matches, losing nine of them – and St Mirren will move on to the same points total if they beat them at Paisley on Saturday.
“It’s quite conceivable, with the way things have been going, that they could lose this weekend,” said McNamara. “The game I’m really concerned about, though, is the derby against Hearts at Easter Road the following Sunday. They’ve already beaten us three times this season and, now that their relegation has been confirmed, the pressure is off them.
“Hearts will be able to relax. They have nothing to fear coming to our place and that’s what worries me.
“The problem is that Hibs are on a bad run and it’s hard to stop that kind of negative momentum because the players will, understandably, be lacking in confidence.
“Perhaps Terry Butcher should take them all out for a pint. Or take them paintballing – anything which brings them together
“At last week’s home defeat by Aberdeen, after Niall McGinn put them ahead then you could see how the young boys, in particular, were affected. The crowd would sigh at every misplaced pass and players just retreated into their shells.
“Of course, the other teams down at the bottom will also be nervous. The next month isn’t going to be a lot of fun for any of them.”
One major problem Hibs face is that there are several members of the current squad whom the management team of Butcher and Maurice Malpas have already decided will not be part of the club’s future and the fear is that those individuals may have already downed tools for this campaign.
“I’d be surprised if there weren’t a lot of them that Terry and Maurice didn’t fancy,” said McNamara. “However, those players should be knocking their pans in, either to change their minds or try to impress another manager.
“Terry is the right man for this job. He’s proved he can work wonders on shoestring budgets but he needs to stay up and avoid the lottery of the play-offs.
“One win from these last five games should be enough and I’m optimistic that Hibs will get it. Put it this way – I can’t even contemplate putting myself through all that again.”