THIS time last year Hibs were struggling to get back on their feet after plummeting into the Championship. They were a club in transition, with a new manager and new players, but when they came up against Rangers in the Petrofac Cup, they only narrowly lost out.
A year on and the League Challenge Cup has again thrown the sides together tomorrow lunchtime, but this time Hibs have continuity and plenty of incentives to help reverse that result.
If the Scott Allan situation was not incendiary enough, Rangers striker Martyn Waghorn has riled Hibs with his comments that they are “pretty basic”, compounding the insult by claiming that the only threat they pose is via the man his Ibrox bosses are targeting.
Add to that the comment from Rangers manager Mark Warburton saying that his men will treat the game as part of their pre-season and betraying annoyance at what he believed was the over-hyping of the cup draw, saying “people were talking as if we’d drawn Real Madrid”, and Alan Stubbs’ men have more than one or two points to prove.
Waghorn, who signed a three-year deal with the Govan outfit on Monday, came up against Hibs earlier this month while he was still on Wigan’s books. The friendly, in La Manga, formed part of the clubs’ warm-weather training and the 23-year-old Englishman scored twice in a 2-1 win.
“You should ask the rest of the Wigan team what they thought about Hibs,” said Stubbs, who had initially refused to be drawn on the dig, but gave a look to indicate he was less than impressed. “It is probably a tongue- in-cheek comment and I don’t read too much into it. I wish him all the best in his Rangers career.”
While Hibs are obviously not La Liga greats, behind closed doors the comment from Warburton, playing down the importance of Saturday’s season opener and the threat likely to be posed by the Easter Road hosts, also went down badly. In public, Stubbs said he could not tell another manager how he should approach the match, but made it clear that he was taking things seriously.
“Every game for me is important. We have played our pre-season games and this is our first competitive game. In my mindset, it is an important game.”
A great game to sink their teeth into, even without the off-field shenanigans, this was always likely to be a match that intrigued. Especially when considered in the context of last season and the fact that the teams are considered the front-runners in the race for the Championship title and automatic promotion to the top flight.
During the last campaign they faced each other seven times on league, cup and play-off duty, with Hibs winning four and Rangers three, including the decisive end-of-season play-off semi-final. Rangers won that on aggregate but couldn’t overcome Motherwell in the final, having to resign themselves to another season in the second tier, where they will again do battle with Stubbs’ men.
“This is a great game for us and there is a bit of deja-vu from last season,” said the Hibs boss. “I think it is a fantastic tie. Hibs and Rangers are two of the biggest teams in the draw and we are picked together for the second year running.”
But if Hibs are a different prospect, so, too, are their rivals, who have overhauled the playing squad over the summer and brought in Warburton and Davie Weir to try to steer them back to the Premiership.
“I watched them against Burnley on Tuesday and they are definitely different in their style,” said Stubbs.
“They are looking to play out from the back more than what they have done. They will get the ball down and they will play, and there is a lot more rotation within the group amongst the players.
“For parts of the game, Rangers played really well. But when you play that way, you can exploit things and Mark will probably think the same about us having watched Hibs.”
It makes for an interesting tussle and a beguiling battle of wits, which will all be spiced up with a dash of Allan, the only Hibs man worth watching according to Waghorn. Having raised the stakes with a second bid, Rangers are still hopeful that the creative midfielder will be turning out for them rather than against them tomorrow. Stubbs is adamant he won’t be.
The Hibs manager says the man of the hour trained as normal this week and, despite all the headlines and hullaballoo, he sees no reason not to select him. Rangers may come in with another bid in the hope of preventing them, but while it seems that some are happy to ease themselves into a new campaign, Stubbs is determined to win even that pre-match battle.