The knotted stomachs that will afflict those of a Hibernian disposition at Easter Road today may make one visiting player queasy over old times.
Scott Robertson will be in the Raith Rovers ranks looking to capitalise on the Leith club’s seeming capacity for crumbling when the Kirkcaldy club take a 1-0 first-leg lead into their quarter-final Premiership play-off return in the capital this lunchtime. He will do so, knowing full well how accusations of a mental fragility that handicaps Hibs took root.
Two-and-a-half years with the club, that ended last summer, makes the 30-year-old one of those who experienced the agonies of top-flight relegation that visited an Easter Road as jangling as it will be this afternoon.
Players and punters collectively had a mental blow-up two years ago as Hamilton Accies sent down Terry Butcher’s side on penalties following the second leg of a play-off final into which they had taken a 2-0 first-leg lead. Robertson knows precisely just how edgy Hibs fans can get in fraught occasions on the home front.
“I sensed that when I was there in the first place but last season [in the Championship under Alan Stubbs] it seemed to dissipate,” he said. “I don’t think it was really the case last season when I was there. I haven’t experienced it this season so I don’t know if the fans have changed their mentality, but we’d like to think that if we can keep it at 0-0 or even get another goal then the fans will show their frustration.
“The fans are just desperate to get back into the Premiership and their desperation maybe translates to the players. Maybe they just don’t perform to the level they know they are capable of. It’s all about results at this time of the season. They can play good football and have loads of chances but if you don’t win games… In the first leg, [on Wednesday night] Hibs probably had a lot more shots at goal than we did, but we won the game 1-0. We’ll take a similar sort of performance and result again.
“When I first joined the club I didn’t sense that [there was any issue over Hibs being ‘bottlers’]. Then obviously with the relegation, there were stories about them bottling big games and the results that followed after sort of backed that up. But last season, I didn’t think that was the case.
“There were games that Hibs should have won. In the Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk, they had enough chances to win. They should have won, but they didn’t. If you don’t score goals you can’t win games, and it was the same against us. They had enough shots at goal to win, but they never and we’re in a good position now. We fancy ourselves going into the tie.”
Robertson says Hibs never really did so in 2014 against Hamilton, even with their seemingly decisive advantage. “I hit the post myself. I think 3-0 might have been insurmountable but 2-0 wasn’t a real reflection of how the game was played. Hamilton dominated until Jason [Cummings] scored. We were lucky to still be at 0-0 at that time so we weren’t going into that second leg thinking ‘job done’ at all.
“The gameplan that day was to not lose an early goal… and we lost an early goal. So that went out the window. We managed to hang on for quite a long time and they got the 93rd-minute goal. So from a Raith Rovers perspective, we’re definitely thinking ‘the tie’s still in the balance’.”
Whatever happens today it might not be easy keeping hold of manager Ray McKinnon, who has worked a rare magic to make Raith top-flight contenders after only a season at the club. McKinnon being linked with Robertson’s former club Dundee United does not surprise the 30-year-old, with his manager ticking all the boxes to becoming increasingly lauded.
“He’s got a little bit of everything. He knows when to speak calmly to players and when to lose the rag and he’s tactically astute. He brought on Harry [Panayiotou] in the game on Wednesday night and he scored a goal with Louis Longridge putting the corner. That worked brilliantly. He’s a good man manager and he’s only been in the dug-out for about three years [in senior football] so he’ll keep improving.
“I hope he stays with Raith Rovers but there’s big speculation surrounding his future and I’m sure that will be decided after the play-offs. He’s proved he’s more than capable of getting results in the Championship, which is where Dundee United will be next season. If you’re looking for anyone who knows this league and can win games in this league then I’m assuming he’s top of that list.”