Aidan Smith: Mind games adding to thrilling title race

What a contest we are witnessing in Scotland’s second tier. For drama, controversy, ebb and flow, needle, jibes, jokes, stunning skill, big mistakes and now crowds, the Premiership has nothing to compare to the rivalry between Rangers and Hibernian. Monday’s crowd of 49,995 was the largest anywhere in the SPFL this season and may not be beaten.

Golden boy: Jason Cummings sparkled in his new boots. Picture: John Devlin
Golden boy: Jason Cummings sparkled in his new boots. Picture: John Devlin

When Jason Cummings kicked off in his new gold boots – a present from Santa, presumably – you thought: there’s gallusness. Or foolishness, one of the two. In his two previous games, Cummings had struggled just as Hibs had struggled. November’s zip had stilled somewhat, even though the team had stayed unbeaten. Boots as attention-seeking as Cummings’ almost demanded that he score a great goal. Well, he did.

The game turned on Fraser Fyvie’s intercepted pass. It has already been much analysed, in the way that some poor decision-making in a rugby match is often accorded the full forensic treatment. Football doesn’t always match rugby for intensity; the battle for the Championship is doing that.

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You wonder what the Rangers midfield thought of the rave reviews the Hibs midfield, including Fyvie, had been getting before this game. Footballers say such things don’t bother them; some claim they don’t even read newspapers or listen to phone-ins. (Aye, right). Outwith Celtic, the best midfield in Scotland, went one such testimony. The Rangers boys can’t have been impressed by that.

At a seething Ibrox, they harried the Hibs players they thought were worth harrying, and these do include Fyvie. There’s talent in the Hibs midfield but not a super-abundance of pace. All over the park, Hibs faces were gotten into. There was a relentlessness about Rangers that reminded you of their 6-2 season-opening win at Easter Road in the Petrofac Cup, a result dismissed as freakish and of little relevance in some quarters because the likes of John McGinn, Liam Henderson and Dylan McGeouch had still to join the Hibs cause, and James Keatings was out injured.

If you were being harsh you’d say that Keatings was just as invisible in this match and you’d wonder if the praise was starting to go to McGinn’s head. That’s three games in a row now he’s fallen below the high standards set previously, although the Rangers players must be given credit for keeping him quiet. And you have to give Mark Warburton credit for doing a tactical job on Hibs, just when some were beginning to think his magic hat was more Tommy Cooper than David Copperfield.

He told Kenny Miller to give him an hour. He kept faith with Barrie McKay. These decisions, and others, brought their rewards. He might well have urged Jason Holt: “These Hibs boys are getting all the rave reviews – go out and show them what you can do.”

And Martyn Waghorn and James Tavernier may have silenced their own doubters starting to make their grumbles heard among the hard-to-please Ibrox support. Ibrox, even with Rangers’ reduced status, continues to present a great and sometimes insurmountable challenge to the team from Leith. Alex McLeish’s Hibs were going great guns until they lost a brutal match in Govan just before Christmas 2000. A later contest was billed as one in which Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson would eclipse Barry Ferguson in midfield, the only doubt being which of them would go on to join Rangers, but on the day Hibs were well beaten and Bazza played a blinder.

Of course, a slight dip in form – and it is only that – does not turn McGinn and Co into bad players. They are young and Warburton, who likes to list the tender ages of those in his squad, knows all about the vagaries of youth. But it’s going to be fascinating – as with every twist and turn of this scrap for the title – to see how they respond to the setback.

Alan Stubbs can call Monday a “free hit” at Rangers and of course there’s a long way to go yet, but he won’t have reckoned on Warburton’s men achieving such a decisive victory. Each team has now ended the other’s impressively long unbeaten run. Rangers stuttered three times after losing at Easter Road in November; Hibs have to wait until March for another hit at the Ibrox side and no one knows whether they will still be just one victory behind by that stage – not even managers in possession of mystical headgear or Amateur Psychology, Level 1.

One thing we can say for sure, though: Warburton and Stubbs won’t want to get involved in another prolonged build-up – what the more excitable papers call a “war of words”. At various times over the last few weeks this has been plain daft, highly entertaining and back-page gold. I don’t think I’m giving away a trade secret by saying that the remarks made by the coaches all came in response to questions from hacks, often quite loaded ones. But while Monday was much-hyped it nevertheless delivered.