LIKE recalcitrant schoolboys, the Hibs players could not resist crowding around the door of Alan Stubbs’ office to try to glimpse how Rangers were faring in Falkirk.
Or at least this is how Lewis Stevenson depicted the scene before kick-off at Easter Road on Saturday, when Hibs had more than a passing interest in the news emanating from the Falkirk Stadium.
Normally the accepted line is to claim that players sit like little Buddhas in the dressing-room before a game, oblivious to the outside world. In this transcendental state they are meant to banish all thoughts other than those relating to the opposition, which in this case was Queen of the South.
But Stevenson has punctured that particular myth. Of course, the Hibs players were (mostly) concentrating on their own assignment that afternoon. But who couldn’t resist a peek to see how Rangers were getting on?
Even had they managed to keep their minds off the unfolding events 30 or so miles to the west, the sight of the normally well-turned-out Stubbs emerging from his office looking so frazzled would have at least hinted at a dramatic denouement, which of course there was.
Rangers were given the chance to level the scores from the penalty spot after a dubious handball call by referee Willie Collum but Martyn Waghorn saw his effort turned onto the post by on-loan Falkirk goalkeeper Danny Rogers. Stubbs entered the dressing-room populated by players pretending that they had been going through their pre-game rituals all along as normal. He informed them that this was their “big chance”. This was their moment “to put the pressure on” their title rivals before Monday’s big match at Ibrox, when Hibs travel to face Rangers in a meeting perhaps being more eagerly awaited than Christmas Day itself, certainly among fans of both teams.
“The gaffer was watching it in his room,” Stevenson revealed, slightly hesitantly, as he reflected on another thrilling day in the Championship on Saturday. “He was trying to keep the door shut because we had a game to focus on. You try to do that, but you still have a wee look and see what’s happening.
“When he came out, Rangers had just missed the penalty and he looked like he’d been through the wringer. He kept us calm though and he basically told us we had a big chance to put the pressure on. We weren’t celebrating or anything like that. We had a big game to focus on. It would have been the biggest sin if we’d been celebrating the Rangers score and we didn’t win our own game.”
Indeed it would have been. But Hibs so very nearly committed this unforgiveable crime by leaving it so late before sourcing a winning goal, through substitute Dominique Malonga. The scenes at Easter Road in the aftermath of this crucial strike reflected just what the goal signified. Now Hibs could look forward to taking on Rangers knowing that they are level-pegging with their rivals on points at the top. There is everything to play for.
“I don’t know how they’ll be feeling,” pondered Stevenson, with reference to Mark Warburton’s suddenly faltering team. “They’re still top of the league so they might have taken that at the start of the season. This game won’t define the season. It’s just three points, bragging rights and a confidence boost for whoever wins but it won’t decide the title. It’ll be January, February, March and April when the results will really matter.
“They’re our direct rivals, so Sunday’s game will have an impact,of course,” he added. “But we can’t get too hung up about it being the be all and end all, or that’s when nerves start to take over.”
But this is good tension to be feeling as opposed to two years ago when Stevenson, one of the few survivors from Hibs’ relegation season, experienced the gradual slide towards relegation under Terry Butcher.
Rather than being hit by late goals – many pinpoint Hibs’ decline to the concession of a late winner at Pittodrie two years ago next month – they are now enjoying the benefit of scoring them, thereby ensuring others are the ones to experience deflation.
“It’s a stark contrast,” he conceded. “You can’t put your finger on why it is, but it does seem that teams at the bottom of the league don’t get the same luck as teams at the top. It probably comes down to the old cliché that you make your own luck if you keep doing the right things, which is what we’re doing just now. Two years ago in the play-off [against Hamilton], we lost a goal with 30 seconds to go. Now we seem to be scoring important late goals.”
At 27, and having spent his entire career at the club, promotion would mean as much to Stevenson as anyone else. He is now in his peak years and looks as fit as he has ever done, something he credits to finally “doing the things a professional footballer is supposed to do”. With every season now becoming ever more precious to him, he is desperate for the chance to play again at the top level. Hibs’ next appointment cannot come quickly enough.