But Alan Stubbs has described Hibs’ heavy loss to Rangers in the Petrofac Cup at the start of the season as the “kick up the arse” they needed in what was a stuttering start to the season.
Now they have recovered to the extent that Stubbs claims Rangers are finding it hard to ignore Hibs’ form, whatever they might say to the contrary. The Championship title rivals meet at Ibrox on Monday in an eagerly awaited fixture and Stubbs is clearly relishing the pre-game to-and-fro between the respective camps.
“We’ve moved on and got stronger as a club and a team,” said Stubbs. “People will say since we beat Rangers, they’ve dropped points and we’ve caught them because of that. But is it not because we’ve been winning and putting pressure on? That’s what happens. There’s no way on earth Rangers haven’t been looking at us.
“You can deny it until you are blue in the face. They know we are there and we look at their results at 4:50pm. Their players would have been looking at ours and when you drop points you think: ‘Oh, there’s another couple of points dropped, or another three points dropped and we’re getting closer and closer’.”
Relations between the clubs were spiced up at the beginning of the campaign, as Rangers sought to prise Scott Allan from Hibs. Stubbs and his opposite number Mark Warburton tried hard to not let the developing situation affect their own relationship, but there is little doubt that things became tenser between them.
This wasn’t helped by Stubbs’ reported contention that it was “easier” to manage Rangers than Hibs given the Ibrox club’s bigger fan base, and greater financial might. Warburton’s response was short and to the point, telling Stubbs to “keep his mouth shut” because he had no knowledge of the facts. For a while, with Rangers moving eight points clear of Hibs, it looked likely that Warburton would be the one having the last laugh.
He certainly came out on top in the first meeting between the teams this season, in the Petrofac Cup. Although Hibs opened the scoring through Sam Stanton, Rangers recovered to win by the handsome margin of 6-2. Stubbs admits the scoreline left him slightly shell-shocked.
However, he is now able to see the merits of such an alarming outcome against the team they knew would be the one to beat.
Stubbs even resorts to the old playground line of “we weren’t ready” when re-assessing that afternoon. He has a point too: in the Hibs side that day were Scott Martin, now on loan with Forfar, and Stanton and Jordon Forster, who have become bit-part players at best, with the latter having not appeared since. Injuries impacted on Stubbs’ pre-season preparations, as did the ongoing saga regarding Allan, who was being courted by Rangers at the time.
Stubbs later resolved to learn from the experience of that afternoon. He also felt his players received the “jolt” they needed, since the result underlined how they would have to work twice as hard as the previous season to reach their goal. When he looked around the dressing room after that game he saw how much it had hurt them. This, he admits, was a pleasing sight.
“Do you know what I did after that game?” asked Stubbs. “It gave me a kick up the backside because I knew what I had to do and what we needed to do. If you look at what we had in the team that day, I only knew we were going to get stronger. We had a lot of injuries at the time.
“We weren’t ready for the game but it was there...and was I surprised by Rangers? Not at all. I’d seen them in pre-season and Mark had brought some good players in so I wasn’t surprised, but it gave the team a kick up the arse, because we had finished the previous season well, unfortunately just missing out in the play-offs. It focused them, it really gave them a focus in that: ‘If you think you’re going to have it all your own way this season then you’re kidding yourself on’.”
It took another few games before Hibs really began to hit their stride. But since losing to Rangers again in August, on this occasion in the league, they have strung together a run of 15 wins in 17 unbeaten matches during a period in which Stubbs even claims they have been failing to hit top form.
“We are just focusing on what we are doing, because we are doing it right at this moment in time,” he said. “We are getting results in different ways. We are churning them out. We have won games well, we have played some really nice football. We have stumbled across the line in one or two of them, we have scrambled one, we have fought hard to get one. I think that tells you everything about the group. You need to do that. In any season you can’t play a game of football when you blow people away for 36 games. It is impossible. You are going to have little dips. And you know what, I think we’ve had a dip – and we have still managed to win.”