IT may have been hyped to an extent to make the fuss surrounding Christmas Day itself seem low-key. But now the wait is finally over.
Rangers will today host Hibernian in a fixture that has been treated to the sort of epic preview normally reserved for cup finals.
People talk about pressure. But when you talk about pressure I feel it is because you are starting to think about failing. So we don’t talk about pressure”ALAN STUBBS
Of course, Alan Stubbs, whose often impish comments made in the direction of Rangers have enlivened the festive season, wasn’t going to let the morning of the game pass without a couple more attempts to get into the heads of the opposition.
It seems a long time now since both teams actually played any football. But on what felt like a significant day in the Championship title battle, Rangers fell to Falkirk while later the same afternoon Hibs managed, eventually, to take full advantage with a late, late win over Queen of the South.
Rangers manager Mark Warburton later tried to play down the psychological impact of this setback. In fact, as Stubbs pointed out earlier this week, he seems to be trying his damnedest to deny the very existence of Hibs, giving his reluctance to mention their name in interviews.
But Stubbs won’t be fooled by Warburton’s attempt to portray Rangers as being blissfully unaware of what is going on (just) behind them. He has attempted to recreate the scene in the living rooms of Rangers players on their return home from Falkirk nine days ago.
Like much of what has emerged from Stubbs’ mouth in recent days, this breaking of the unwritten code not to speculate about the opposition won’t please Warburton.
But Stubbs was adamant he knew how Rangers were feeling when Jeff Stelling relayed news of Hibs’ last-gasp winner.
Their relief at having been seemingly let off the hook slightly by Hibs’ apparent failure to record a win over Queens was extinguished by Dominique Malonga’s injury-time winner. Stubbs relished imagining the scenes of dismay.
“If they were looking at Soccer Saturday and the results coming in, and you are watching the clock ticking down, thinking: ‘we have managed to get away with only dropping a point’. And then to suddenly see that flash up – and it would probably have been one of the last ones to flash up – It does make you think: ‘oh for…’
“Because it’s what I would have done if it was Rangers who had scored late on,” he added. “It does have an effect. People talk about pressure. But when you talk about pressure I feel it is because you are starting to think about failing. So we don’t talk about pressure. We talk about succeeding. As soon as you start to talk about pressure you are starting to put doubt in your mind.”
Although Stubbs has been more than happy to facilitate the scale of coverage, he doesn’t believe today’s game is do-or-die. Far from it, in fact. Rather, he describes it as a “free crack” for Hibs, who, even if they lose, are still only three points behind their rivals. The teams still have to play each other once more at Easter Road.
“It is a free hit,” he stressed. “We go there and will have a right go at them. We are going to test them and they’ll test us, because it is two good teams, we have seen from the games, apart from the Petrofac game. They were close games, there is no denying that. But there is no pressure on us.”
If the pressure isn’t on Hibs, it must, therefore, all be on Rangers. Can they respond after recent setbacks?
“I don’t know, can you ask me in the press conference afterwards?” replied Stubbs. “It’s a test. It’s just a test along the way. It’s the same for us.
“But it’s a free test because, in the worst case scenario, we could have been 14 points behind Rangers on Monday if things hadn’t gone to plan. The fact we could be three points ahead of them is an unbelievable turnaround by us.
“When we play them at Easter Road the pressure will be on us.
“But the worst case scenario now is we’ll be three points behind them.”
After such entertaining to-and-fro between Stubbs and Warburton, perhaps the Hibs manager saved the most important piece of analysis for last.
It might be lost slightly amid the theatre and the name-calling but, according to Stubbs, Rangers are now being found out. This observation might be the one that really gets under Warburton’s skin.
Not that Stubbs is the only once to notice how the Ibrox side’s early-season dominance, where the tempo was supplied by rampaging full-backs James Tavernier and Lee Wallace, has fallen away. Neither player has been as dynamic of late.
“You only have to look at how their full-backs have been nullified to a certain extent over recent weeks,” he said.
“Teams are now doubling up. James [Tavenier] had a ridiculous start to the season where he got into double figures, which is just absurd for a right-back.
“Lee Wallace scored a number of goals as well.
“Now they are going through a period where I think it is two wins in six – not that I’ve noticed or anything – so it has been a little bit of a sticky period for them. They will come strong again, I’m not denying that. But I hope it’s not on Monday.”