ALAN Stubbs is no stranger to stepping out in front of 50,000 fans at Ibrox. It is just he hasn’t experienced it so far this season – yet. But tonight the Hibernian manager will get a taste of the Rangers ground at its most partisan on what promises to be a high-octane occasion.
Stubbs was in Govan on Sunday but was safely ensconced in a makeshift television studio as Rangers overcame the challenge of Queen of the South to secure their passage through to the play-off semi-final. It wasn’t without its agonies. The players were jeered off at half-time as Rangers trailed to Derek Lyle’s goal. Queens had struck on the break and the home fans were anguished.
Perhaps this gave Stubbs some food for thought? Rather than take the game to Rangers, might there be something to be gained from seeking to frustrate both the home team and the supporters in this first leg? This isn’t in his or his team’s make-up, he answered. Why should Hibs change their outlook when it has brought two victories from three trips to Ibrox this season?
“We want to go there and get a result,” said Stubbs. “It’s the same as I’ve said all season. It’s going to be no different from our point of view. It’s very difficult to ask a team to go into the away tie and try to come out of there with a draw or just hang in there and get some sort of result to bring back. It’s much better if you go there and try to win.”
He wasn’t surprised by the fierce reaction of the supporters at half-time. “I thought they were booing me in the studio!” the former Celtic defender said. “As footballers, you have to deal with both sides of the coin. You can’t just always take the cheers and the plaudits.
“Rangers have got big players who have been in those situations before. They [the Rangers fans] can boo me all they like. I am just too far away to be within touching distance from them on the touchline. I hope they are [booing].
“I think it has the makings of a great game,” he added. “There is a real excitement around both games. I think these are the two teams everyone thought would be in this round and so it has proved to be. I am really excited.”
While clearly energised, Stubbs has promised to remain calmness personified. He is a veteran of such occasions. He played at Ibrox many times for Celtic and then really was the target for vitriol, as were his team-mates. He has managed there three times already this season as well – indeed, it is where his managerial career began in a League Cup clash in August.
While Hibs fell to defeat on that particular evening, they have since twice clinched victory there in the league. The disillusionment, and perhaps even trepidation, engulfing the home fans meant there were plenty of spare seats on both these most recent occasions. Now, though, there is a new sense of optimism, which has only been increased by yesterday’s news regarding Ibrox chairman-in-waiting Dave King’s ratification by the board of the Scottish Football Association.
Things are falling into place in the promotion race as well. Two games. Four days. The winners of this tie will play Motherwell. Everything is becoming clearer. Everything is becoming more intense. But you wouldn’t know it yesterday. Stubbs strode into his pre-match briefing and dealt with the first question by inviting reporters to judge his state of mind by his demeanour. “I think you can see I am relaxed,” he said.
After several days in the Spanish sunshine, he looked admittedly well. He is far from care-worn. Liam Craig, the Hibs midfielder who had just vacated the room, vouched for his manager’s equable state, describing it as among his greatest attributes.
For a club that is meant to buckle at the slightest hint of pressure, this is promising. Having Stubbs at the helm is clearly an advantage. He describes learning from the best when it comes to managing pre-match nerves. If even he exhibited signs of worry, then what hope did he have of persuading his players to keep calm and carry on?
“When you looked at Martin on the touchline, you would not think he was like that, but before the game he was very calm,” said Stubbs, with reference to Martin O’Neill, his last manager during a five-year stay at Celtic Park. “He gave the players real confidence and then got himself embroiled in the atmosphere – but in a good way. He was a very intelligent man. Even though he was like that on the touchline, intellectually he was very clever.
“David [Moyes] probably got better as time went on,” he added, turning to one of his managers in two spells at Everton. “He grew into being that [calmer]. Roberto [Martinez] is very, very calm on the side. I suppose working with those people has to help. If it doesn’t then you haven’t listened properly.”
Also helping anyone gain some perspective is enduring such a truly stressful challenge as the one Stubbs faced when struck down by testicular cancer over 15 years ago. He also has great faith in players who have done as well as anyone expected by finishing second in the league, holding off the challenge of tonight’s opponents. “If I was a player and I see my coach really nervous it does not portray what you want,” he said. “I think the reason I am calm about things is because they give me confidence. I am confident in my players. They can make mistakes. But it is all about responding, about not making the next one.”
Stubbs believes it is only natural that Hibs will benefit from the situation in which their opponents have had to deal with three games in ten days while they have been able to rejuvenate themselves abroad. Not that we should make the mistake in thinking the players have been allowed to relax. They didn’t want to, in any case. “If anything we have switched on, not switched off,” said Stubbs.
“That’s the best way to put that. We have had three or four days where they were allowed to switch off straight after the last game of the season. Then we went away and they were completely switched on again. We were having to pull them back and limit the training time because they were wanting more and more. That’s been the hardest bit. Hopefully they will be raring to go tomorrow.”