ALAN Stubbs has no complaints about the fact Hearts are 26 points clear of his Hibernian side at the top of the Championship. He accepts that they are worthy champions and phoned Robbie Neilson, their head coach, recently to tell him so. However, the Hibs head coach believes his team’s tally of just two points from three games against their city rivals this season has not done their Edinburgh derby performances justice.
Stubbs is adamant Hibs have never looked inferior to the runaway title winners when they have locked horns. In the first game, at Tynecastle in August, the visitors were left to rue a missed first-half penalty by captain Liam Craig before a couple of late goals gave Hearts a 2-1 victory. In the return, at Easter Road in October, they were denied victory by a sensational 40-yard equaliser by Hearts defender Alim Ozturk in stoppage time. In the most recent match, the New Year showdown at Tynecastle, Hibs were widely considered to have been the better team in another tightly-contested match which ended 1-1.
They remain the only team to have taken points from Hearts on more than one occasion this season, but Stubbs is desperate to see his team finally reward themselves with a derby victory at Easter Road tomorrow to reflect their undisputed competitiveness in the fixture since he replaced Terry Butcher at the helm last summer. “I think over the 90 minutes, we’ve been close,” he said. “Looking at the results, we have drawn two and lost one, and I think that’s because we’re just two good football teams. On our day we’re a good team who have caused Robbie’s team problems and on their day they’ve caused us problems.
“We’ve had opportunities, especially at Easter Road, 1-0 up. We had opportunities to go 2-0 up, which is important. At 1-0, yes, you shouldn’t feel vulnerable, you should feel confident in seeing the game out. But anything can happen. As we saw. When you are on top in any game, you have to utilise that and win the game 2-0 rather than just rely on 1-0.
“At Tynecastle [in August], the penalty, whether it was a game-changer I am not too sure, but it was an important moment. Then Hearts scored a great goal and we were fighting an uphill battle. We got back into the game at 2-1 but it was too late. I thought we played well [in] the game at Tynecastle when we drew. I think if anything we just shaded it. But I want the full package, I want us to perform and get the three points, not perform and get a draw.”
As well as seeing their rivals sprint relentlessly to the title, Hibs supporters have had only one derby victory to celebrate in the last eight meetings between the teams. “Obviously Hearts have got bragging rights because they’ve won the league – and rightly so,” said Stubbs. “But we’ve got a chance to, most importantly, get three points towards finishing second, and from the fans’ point of view, it would be nice for them to go in work on Monday and have a laugh and joke with their workmates who may be Hearts fans. It would be great for them to be on the other side, instead of getting the remarks for losing the game.”
Hibs looked like they had relinquished their hopes of finishing second when a three-game losing streak coincided with a run of three successive wins for rivals Rangers. However, the midweek fixtures, in which Hibs stopped the rot by winning at Dumbarton and Rangers were unexpectedly crushed by Queen of the South, have put things back in the melting pot.
The two sides are locked together on points, with Hibs having the better goal difference and Rangers holding a game in hand. While Stubbs is determined to win the battle for second, he is reluctant to place too much importance on it with regards to how the play-offs may pan out.
“The fact that Rangers lost to Queens means it will go down to the wire,” he said. “If they had won it would have been over. The play-offs have only happened once so there is not really any evidence to say there will be huge advantage to anyone that finishes second. You can’t go back over the last ten seasons and say the team that has won has finished second eight out of ten times. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to finish second.”
Tomorrow’s match precedes next Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk. However, Stubbs insists the trip to Hampden remains on the back-burner for now. “I haven’t thought about it yet,” he said. “I’ve got a big game on Sunday. Once that takes care of itself, depending on the result, I might have a drink. I may not. I may have one either way! Then on Sunday night, Monday morning, we’ll focus on the semi-final.”
Hibs will be without defenders Keith Watson and David Gray, who both have hamstring injuries, but Dylan McGeouch is expected to return after missing the last two games with an ankle niggle, while fellow midfielder Scott Robertson is hopeful of shaking off the injury that forced him off at half time at Dumbarton.