WHEN he was asked in the immediate aftermath of play-off defeat who he fancied would secure the final place in next season’s Premiership, an obviously disappointed Alan Stubbs’ response was curt but, in the circumstances, completely understandable. “I couldn’t care less who wins that one,” he said.
Stubbs does care, though. For his club, Hibernian, the outcome of the two-legged showdown is far from immaterial. And among the many questions the club’s supporters will be asking themselves over the next few days as they come to terms with another season in the Championship, the one of who they’d prefer to have with them is as tricky as it is tantalising.
‘Rangers would make the Championship a bigger sell but also more challenging’
Rangers or Motherwell? Glamour, or a potentially less hazardous route back to the top? But there are disadvantages to both because of course no one ever said it would be easy being a Hibee.
If it has to be the men from Fir Park, then Hibs would hope they will be as shellshocked by relegation as the Easter Road team were, and as discombobulated by Alloa Athletic’s plastic pitch. This would allow Hibs to romp to an early lead in the same way they were left trailing by Hearts and could never catch up.
Oh, that football was that simple. Hibs fans know better than most how it can be a Rubik’s Cube with the green squares removed. They are not disregarding Motherwell, who have invariably been tough opponents for them in the past, but they are wondering what kind of Championship it will be if Rangers were to join Hearts in getting out.
A less vital one, surely, in the eyes of broadcasters, newspapers and the wider football public. The fear already bubbling in Leith is that, even if Hibs and Motherwell were to have a cracking old scrap for the title, to the extent of recreating their famous 6-6 draw of a few years ago every time they played each other, then hardly anyone beyond the respective orbits would notice.
Would Sportscene notice? Would there be on Sunday nights, after the top-flight highlights, analysis and banter, even just a few seconds of Championship action – shaky footage from low-slung cameras in quaint grounds where every old-timer’s grumble and seagull squawk can be heard? Probably not next season.
This season has been a Championship like no other. Never again will three such famous names find themselves lumped together there. Hence all the coverage, the live matches, the on-trend, on-pitch panel discussions, the pages of newsprint suggesting a reduced contest in name only.
It’s not the norm. Normal for Hibs when they have been relegated has been to slip off the map somewhat, to slip into places like Somerset Park, Ayr, and even when asking a Champions League winner like Frank Sauzee to tread the bumpy turf, to accept that they are not part of the main story. Then to get back involved as quickly as possible.
Hibs have not gone down and stayed down for more than 80 years. Relegated from the old First Division in 1930-31, they could not achieve promotion in one go. In fact, they only finished seventh – behind Forfar Athletic, St Bernard’s, Stenhousemuir, Raith Rovers, St Johnstone and champions East Stirlingshire – and took another year to return as champs themselves.
So for 2015-16 would the current side view Rangers as posing less of a threat to their promotion ambitions than St Bernard’s back in those pre-war days when there was no Sportscene and no Pat Nevin punditising from a chair which, to give his legs the benefit of the doubt, must have been ratcheted up too high?
This is the big question. As I say, there are others preoccupying the faithful. Saturday’s disappointment notwithstanding, they’ve been happy with Stubbs. They like his style, on and off the park, his ability to spot a player, the restoration of old values, the return of easy-on-the-eye football.
But ultimately the club didn’t go up. Does the manager regret being so bold in the first leg at Ibrox? Can he make the team more consistent, more ruthless? Then there’s the question, big enough in itself, of which players will stay for another Championship and who won’t. This can be shortened to: Can Hibs keep Scott Allan? But to some extent the Rangers issue looms over the rest.
If Rangers don’t go up over the course of Thursday and next Sunday, then the Championship doesn’t lose as much lustre. Their continued presence, especially with the club moving into a new phase of their history and hopefully a blissful one in the boardroom compared to recent times, will mean the second division will be impossible to ignore.
This would keep the TV wagons coming to games and that exposure could be a useful tool in helping Stubbs retain some players and attracting new ones. Rangers would made the Championship a bigger sell but of course it would also make the job of graduating from it all the more challenging.
Stubbs does not seem like the kind of guy to shirk a challenge, either in football or in life. Wherever he watches the final countdown – and he surely will be – I reckon he would cheerfully take Motherwell and, no disrespect to them, aim to have his team finish next season as free-flowing flag-winners.
But Rangers have posed Hibs problems since Stuart McCall bashed them into some kind of shape, ridding them of an ineptitude that hadn’t been witnessed at Ibrox since Bobby Williamson’s lumbering charges into the opposition box were echoing round empty stands and John MacDonald was squealing for penalties.
Stubbs will want to prove that his opposite number hasn’t now got his number. He could wait until the season after next to do this – assuming McCall is still in charge, of course – but I fancy he wouldn’t mind Rangers remaining in the Championship if he was to scoop up the benefits of having the man from Govan around and then be as rude as to climb over the top of them to achieve automatic promotion.
Of course there’s a school of thought – and one of Scottish football’s most venerable told me on Saturday he is utterly convinced it would happen – that if Rangers don’t beat Motherwell then league reconstruction will come to their rescue. But that’s another story…