ALAN Stubbs might not have said it in so many words yesterday, but it seems clear he feels Hibernian deserve to come through today against Rangers for their efforts so far this season.
Having finished second in the league, his side have put the hard graft in over the course of a long campaign. They have also beaten Rangers in three of their four regulation league meetings.
I find it difficult when people take a cheap shot at the players when they don’t know them as peopleAlan Stubbs
Now it comes down to one afternoon. Their success in finishing ahead of Rangers will count for nothing if they do not now manage to overhaul a two-goal deficit against the same team in today’s second leg Championship play-off tie.
If they do, it will form the sweetest of victories for Stubbs, who, it is safe to say, has tired of those employing sweeping generalisations to make sense of Hibs defeats. Interestingly, the manager brought this subject up himself, having bristled after it was put to him on Wednesday after the visitors’ 2-0 defeat at Ibrox in the first leg.
In the immediate aftermath, it was inevitable he would be asked whether the numerous times when Hibs have failed to rise to the big occasion is down to some inherent failure of nerve. He wasn’t having it then and he isn’t having it now.
Midway through answering a question about whether he had a message for the fans – he did, and it was “make Easter Road rock like it’s never rocked before” – he veered off-topic to deal with the elephant in the room, one summed up in a single word: bottle.
“I don’t like it when people keep questioning my players’ bottle,” he complained. “Because that is a slight on me. And I don’t like that.
“I work with them every day, they’re great professionals, but, most importantly, they’re good people. I find it difficult at times when people take that cheap shot at them when they don’t know them as people.
“That’s the disappointing thing. Things that happened in the past happened in the past. I think it is lazy analysis.
“We have a chance to make people eat their words,” he added. “There is nothing better. Tomorrow will be one of those chances.”
In order for this to be so, Hibs will need to take their chances. This was the difference between taking something from a game in which they forced 13 corners to Rangers’ one and not taking something. In fact, worse than simply not taking something, they have put themselves in a position from which many feel they cannot even retrieve the situation. It goes without saying that Stubbs does not count himself among this group.
He points to recent history, if “recent” is applicable to something that happened ten years ago on Monday. Not that the anniversary of Liverpool’s famous comeback against AC Milan in the Champions League final will be marked down in this proud Evertonian’s diary. “We’ve seen lots of occasions where these things turn around,” said Stubbs, who began supporting Everton in the early 1980s.
“Liverpool – and I hate saying this – were 3-0 down at half-time in Istanbul and they go on and win it.”
Going back further, Stubbs himself played in a Football League First Division play-off final clash for Bolton Wanderers in 1995 when his side scored twice in the last 15 minutes against Reading to force extra time after being 2-0 down. They eventually won 4-2. “You can go on,” he said. “Hibs last year – 2-0 up from the first leg and lost it. Why can’t it be roles reversed this year? It can be done, simple as that.
“I want tomorrow to be an occasion that fans will look back on in years to come and say: ‘I was there, I was there when it was turned around.’ I believe we’re firmly right in this tie,” he added. “As long as we score the first goal, I don’t see any reason why we can’t overcome the scoreline.”
In order to claw back the deficit, Hibs’ hopes may well rest on Jason Cummings, who appeared so out of sorts in midweek. Stubbs, however, has no concerns over the 19-year-old striker, who has scored 20 times to date this season but who failed to connect with a cross at the far post at Ibrox on Wednesday, one of several key moments in the game.
“I said all along that the most important thing is for strikers to be in positions – I would be more worried if he was not there,” noted Stuubs. “If that opportunity arrives tomorrow, he’ll take it.”
“I need the starting XI or the subs tomorrow to perform at a level at which they have performed this season,” he added, making seeming reference to the fact Hibs have already proved themselves in one respect by finishing runners-up to champions Hearts.
Given how much rests on the clash, he was giving little away in terms of team selection, save noting there was a “possibility” striker Farid El Alagui – an unused substitute on Wednesday – will have a part to play.
Although Stubbs would not allow himself to look beyond 1:45pm today – it might even be later, as the manager hinted, should extra time and even penalties be required – it is natural if supporters are already wondering what the future holds should they be condemned to another season of second-tier football.
Talents like Scott Allan are bound to be on the wanted list of other clubs, while those nearing the end of their contracts must also be convinced to stay on, providing they are wanted of course.
“I think that’s normal,” said Stubbs. “I’m not worried about it right now. But I think that’s a valid question, a fair question. It’s something that, as a club, we’ll be tackling.
“We will be desperately trying to make sure they do stay here.”
These talks could yet be postponed for longer than Monday morning, when Stubbs really does expect to have a play-off final heading his list of priorities.
Fontaine wants to take fresh approach to capitalise on Rangers’ tiredness
Liam Fontaine hopes Hibernian can take advantage of weariness in the Rangers camp as they bid to overturn a two-goal deficit in their Scottish Premiership play-off semi-final second leg at Easter Road this afternoon.
Fontaine rejects the claim from some who watched Hibs struggle to hit top form on Wednesday that they were rusty after an 18-day break since the end of the regulation season. Rangers, on the other hand, have now played three times since then. Today’s clash is their third in six days, having also negotiated their quarter-final second leg against Queen of the South last Sunday.
“I think there’s going to be tiredness,” said Fontaine. “They might say they’re not tired, but we’re all human and to play that many games that quickly, it’s going to be tiring mentally and physically. It’s going to be a case of who is the most concentrated and bright on the day.”
He is confident Hibs can start the game as they finished it on Wednesday, by pressing their opponents back. “They had the lead and were defending it, rightly so,” he said. “We were pressing and we’ve got to do the same at Easter Road. We’ve got to be high tempo and be relentless.
“It’s going to take a big effort, we know that,” he added. “But the good thing is that we know what we have to do. We have to score goals and that’s in everyone’s mind.”
Fontaine is one of those who were frustrated not to do more with the 13 corners Scott Allan slung into the Rangers box in midweek. This was a marked contrast to the solitary corner kick won by the hosts. But they count for nothing unless something tangible can be gained from them, a point not missed by the centre-half who has scored just once in the league this season. The defenders have a part to play in attack as well as at the back, where it is of paramount importance that they stop Rangers scoring the goal that many feel could kill the tie.
“Set-pieces are always vital,” said Fontaine. “We had a lot the other night and Dom [Malonga], especially, had a great chance from a set-piece. Me, Paul [Hanlon] and Dave [Gray] feel we’re due a goal. We’ll be trying everything.
“Scottie’s got great delivery so any team would be anxious when he’s putting balls into the box,” he added. “As a defender going up for corners, it’s great to have someone like that. Sometimes you just have to commit to a run and if you get into an area where Scottie’s ball’s coming in, you’ve always got a chance. We had a lot of corners on Wednesday. We’ll have to put on that kind of pressure at Easter Road. But this time put the ball in the net.”