When Hibs were supposedly stealing several marches on Rangers by snapping up new players before the Ibrox side had even appointed a manager in June, nobody could have envisaged the Easter Road side being ranked as 20/1 outsiders for the title by the end of the Championship season’s first quarter.
However, as they prepare to face Dumbarton this Saturday, for the first time since their campaign-opening defeat away to the Sons handed Rangers the early initiative, the margin for error for the Edinburgh club is minimal if they are to have any chance of winning automatic promotion to the Premiership this season.
Eleven points behind the league leaders, albeit with a tricky game in hand away to Falkirk next week, was not a scenario anyone at Easter Road imagined in those optimistic early summer days. The main source of solace for Hibs, however, is that the widespread consensus that Rangers are champions in waiting owes more to the Ibrox side’s perceived strength than any significant shortcomings in Alan Stubbs’ team.
All things considered, Hibs have had a fairly promising first quarter of the campaign. In their eight league games, they have had three setbacks – one draw and two defeats. The first, the aforementioned loss at Dumbarton, came at the height of the destabilising Scott Allan transfer saga, when the club, through no fault of its own, became gripped by a sense of gloom and uncertainty. Their only other defeat, away to Rangers, is one that will still rankle with Stubbs as it was a game Hibs could – and probably should – have won. The dynamic of the title race would have looked notably different had Jason Cummings or Liam Henderson netted their big chances in that game and secured a victory.
Since then, however, Hibs have got close to the level of consistency they will require if they are to have any chance of hauling themselves back into the title race. Six wins from seven games in all competitions, with only one goal conceded in that run, suggests they are a team on a mission. Their only slip-up since Ibrox was a 1-1 home draw with St Mirren which was forgivable as it came just a few days after an energy-sapping, focus-averting League Cup win over Premiership leaders Aberdeen. The fact they got straight back on the horse with a comprehensive victory at Queen of the South was reassuring for a support wary of seeing their team fall out of title contention entirely.
Hibs’ hopes of winning the league are slim. There is no escaping that reality – but they are not forlorn just yet. Indeed, the next four league games provide them with an opportunity to remind Rangers that they are still in the mix. If they can secure a maximum haul of 12 points from Dumbarton home, Falkirk away, Raith Rovers away and Rangers home, they will be – at the very worst – just five behind the Ibrox side. Although it won’t be straightforward by any stretch, there is no obvious reason why they shouldn’t win the first three of those games.
The chat among the Hibs players over the past month or two has been about trying to keep themselves close enough to Rangers so that the head-to-head matches between the two teams are significant. There is no inferiority complex at Easter Road – Hibs genuinely believe they are as good as Rangers and have the beating of them on any given day. In the Petrofac Cup game in July – although they were ultimately thrashed 6-2 by Mark Warburton’s team – Hibs bossed most of the first half and had chances to kill Rangers off before they came roaring back after the break. In the game at Ibrox, no-one in the home ranks could have complained had the visitors left Glasgow with three points.
Under Stubbs, Hibs have generally prospered against the stronger teams. In the League Cup, they have defeated Premiership pair Ross County and Aberdeen and taken Dundee United – top-flight high-flyers at the time – to penalties. In the four games against last season’s runaway Championship winners Hearts, Hibs won one and drew two, while they also defeated Rangers three times last term. Given their recent form, they will be confident of doing so again at the start of next month, assuming they can keep themselves in the winning groove over the next few weeks.
With early-season injuries fast clearing up, Stubbs able to field a settled team and new recruits like Henri Anier, Adam Eckersley and Islam Feruz still waiting in the wings, it is hard to escape the feeling that, as they did last season after a slow start, they are only going to get stronger as the campaign progresses.
The smart money remains on Rangers making their early advantage count the way Hearts did last year. But if Hibs, who have won 15 of their past 21 league games since mid-February, can show the resolve and consistency to come through their next four Championship matches without any blemishes, a five-point deficit with two-thirds of the campaign remaining would have them well and truly back in business.