Aidan Smith: Hibs really have to win against Rangers

Andy Halliday, centre, celebrates his strike for Rangers with Martyn Waghorn in  the Petrofac defeat of Hibs at Easter Road in July. Photograph: SNS Group/Craig Foy
Andy Halliday, centre, celebrates his strike for Rangers with Martyn Waghorn in the Petrofac defeat of Hibs at Easter Road in July. Photograph: SNS Group/Craig Foy
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SAY what you like about Hibernian’s Jason Cummings – that he’s as a daft as a bottle of crisps, for instance – but he doesn’t half brighten up a post-match debrief. While all around him are being mock-modest and suggesting their winning goals could just as easily have ended up in row Z, he will cut through this polite piffle as if he was opening a tin of beans.

“That was some zing from myself,” Cummings will say. “I opened up a tin of beans there.” Then he’ll go to Ibrox, a place where you are truly expected to retreat quietly and almost apologetically if you happen to achieve a victory, and declare that his decisive strike was despatched with the “touch of an angel”. Cynics will scoff: “Pah, he thinks about what he’s going to say beforehand.” The fitba scribe, weary from the anodyne rigmarole, will respond: “It’s nice that someone does. If that’s being contrived, give us more of it.”

The poet e.e. cummings worked entirely in lowercase letters; Jason Cummings broadcasts his feats in screaming capitals. Journos are probably competing with each other to get him to say something funny and I admit that when his quotes are collected for a Christmas fun-book I’ll expect to be credited for this one:

Cummings, after a welcome-to-the-Championship defeat: “This is a wake-up call. We’ve got to realise that when they play us, clubs like Alloa are going to bring their A-game.”

Your correspondent: “So what game did Hibs take to Recreation Park?”

The bold Jase: “You mean from the alphabet, like? Probably our M-game.”

Compared to the previous two seasons, you’d have to say that the striker this term has been more like his namesake e.e. and more understated. Another year in the second tier is no laughing matter for Hibs and, certainly, nothing to brag about.

But he hasn’t gone completely silent. After a win over Alloa – Hibs are having far fewer problems with the Wasps now – I wondered if he was keen for another crack at Rangers. Now, footballers are programmed to respond only to questions about their next match on the schedule, but Cummings couldn’t resist discussing one which at that point was still seven weeks away. “We can’t wait to play them again,” he said.

The wait is over. The game, which could have far-reaching con-sequences for the Championship and for both of its participants, kicks off at lunchtime.

It could also have far-reaching consequences for the structure of Scottish football. If Rangers fail to get up this season, some predict an immediate expansion of the Premiership to 16 clubs. But that debate is for another time. There’s plenty to discuss as it is.

Can Hibs do what they did almost exactly ten years ago and stop a runaway train? Back then it was Hearts who’d swept all before them, winning every game. But on 29 October, 2005 the table-topping Jambos were derailed at Easter Road. Ending a Rangers unbeaten record would rate a close second in the schadenfreude stakes for the Leith faithful.

The teamsheet for that heady 2005 victory would make Hibbies greet: Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor, Guillaume Beuzelin, Gary Caldwell, Michael Stewart, David Murphy. OK, Zibby Malkowski was the goalkeeper and Humphrey Rudge played in defence, but you get the idea. Hibs had a side capable of doing something memorable and then – much like O’Connor would go on to blow millions on cocaine, champagne, Ferraris and £2,000 tracksuits – they woke up one day and it was gone.

This is all too recent for the fans, all too raw. The redevelopment of Easter Road was completed with funds from the sales of that bonnie talent but the ground with its echoing stands is starting to look like a folly. This is hard on Alan Stubbs, who’s got his team playing attractive football and more reminiscent of that of the Tony Mowbray era than anything put on the park by the guys who came in between. But such are the harsh realities.

Hibs, though, have to prove they want to be more than the best-dressed runners-up, the comeliest losers, the team with the style awards who are nevertheless bound for Recreation Park yet again – featuring the striker who gives good quote. Nothing will be properly decided today but victory for the team in green and white would revitalise their challenge and unnerve their rivals, so really Hibs have to win.

Previously, when the club appeared to have so much going for them, they lacked ambition. They assumed the fans would always turn up and that the assembly-line would go on producing more Browns and Riordans but they were wrong. Gates are down and dreams have dimmed. They’re not yet extinguished but ambition is urgently required. Chugging along, cranking up Glory, Glory to the Hibees, relying on the nice views of the Forth when the game goes to sleep, doesn’t work in the Championship. And anyway, the views have gone now.

In the Hibs fairytale, the hard-luck story, there are usually some bad guys. Tougher, hungrier opponents who might play less football but want the result more. But this Rangers side cannot be accused of battering their way to a position of pre-eminence like some who’ve gone before. Mark Warburton has, in a very short space of time and seemingly out of nothing, fashioned a vibrant team who’ve revived a species of supporter long thought extinct: the Govan aesthete.

Rangers undoubtedly unsettled Hibs with their repeated attempts to lure Scott Allan to Ibrox but that’s in the past. Hibs are over the loss of their playmaker, proving that no one is indispensible. The midfield is more collegiate now, with more players involved, creating and scoring goals. Sadly for Allan, given his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Celtic career thus far, fans of both clubs who coveted him so keenly might be tempted to ask: “Scott who?”

Martyn who? James who? That is what even the Rangers supporters were wondering when Messrs Waghorn and Tavernier lined up in light blue in the season opener at Easter Road. That pair were the goal heroes that day and have continued to be ever since, but Hibs have changed personnel since that Petrofac Cup tie, and not just in that all-new midfield.

Their next trick will be to prove they’ve changed philosophy, that they can go out and win a vital game like this. The time for talking, however entertaining young Cummings can be, is over.