Craig Paterson believes victory over Rangers on Saturday would confirm the improvement Hibs have made over the past few months.
Although they have already beaten the Ibrox outfit this season, the Hibees’ only home wins in the league have come against the bottom three sides in the Championship – Livingston, Alloa Athletic and Cowdenbeath,
Paterson, the former Hibs and Rangers defender, insists improving that record will be vital to the Easter Road side’s hopes of clinching promotion with, the play-off system affording them the likeliest chance of returning to the top flight given the yawning gap which exists between them and Capital rivals Hearts.
He believes the heat is on both sides going into this weekend’s match, with Alan Stubbs’ men attempting to close the gap on the troubled Glasgow club while Rangers themselves won’t have given up hope of catching Hearts in the race for the title and a guaranteed return to the top flight.
He said: “The pressure is on both. Rangers have to win games week after week and hope Hearts show some sign of weakness. No-one talked about Hibs in terms of the Championship title but they are on a wee run, showing their best form and are fun to watch.
“They’ve seen a bit of improvement and Alan Stubbs will be hoping that continues and that carries them into the play-offs. They’ve only had one defeat in 12 matches but they still have a major problem in getting results at Easter Road.
“Hibs put in a terrific performance against Rangers in the Petrofac Training Cup and then had a great win at Ibrox in the league. They know they can do it, but what a massive boost it would be for them if they could win this kind of match at Easter Road.”
Although recent results suggest Hibs are heading in the right direction, Paterson believes their slow start to the season means the title is already out of their reach, with Robbie Neilson’s rampant league leaders already enjoying a 19-point lead over their city rivals as the campaign approaches its half-way point.
He said: “Hibs could win every game from now on and might still come up short because, the way Hearts are going, you ask ‘how many points are they going to drop over the course of the season?’ You talk about a couple of injuries or suspensions to key players, but they beat Rangers without Danny Wilson, Osman Sow and Prince Buaben.
“I don’t think they are going to come back to the pack and to catch them would take a phenomenal run. Rangers, 12 points back and having to play Hearts twice, might be able to, but, for me, Hibs have to keep their eyes firmly fixed on third with anything else being a bonus. I’d imagine Hibs will wants to focus on what is attainable, to finish the season going into the play-offs with a bit of momentum.
“Look at last year, Hamilton had a good season, played the qualifiers and won them before going into that head-to-head with Hibs, who must have been on a real low because of the way they’d finished.”
Paterson, a BBC football pundit, believes that, along with Stubbs having to assemble a new squad, Hibs suffered from a hangover given the way everything collapsed last season, with just one league win after the festive period causing a relegation which hadn’t looked possible around the turn of the year. He said: “It must have affected the players who remained at the club mentally, you can’t gloss over that. Coping with relegation is hard enough but it was the manner in which Hibs went down.
“Everything had looked rosy for them this time last year and even going into the bottom six, one win from their last five games would have made the difference.
“But it’s that confidence thing – it goes and you become a soft touch. There was a major rebuilding job to be done, Alan would have seen that when he came in. The hardest thing is to give players confidence. It takes time to get over something like that, but the likes of Dylan McGeouch, Liam Fontaine, David Gray and Dominique Malonga have come in, found their feet and, I think, Alan’s players are now looking forward to games.”
Although much has been made of Hibs facing Rangers and Hearts in quick succession, Paterson pointed out that a visit from Falkirk, back on track for a play-off place after clocking up five successive wins, is to follow. He said: “Rangers will be looking to catch Hearts but they’ll also be looking over their shoulders at Hibs while Hibs will have their eyes on Rangers but also be aware that Falkirk, who have already beaten them twice, are right behind them, as are Queen of the South.
“It’s an exciting time but if Hibs want to stake a claim and show they are as good as anyone then these are three games in which they have to stamp their authority. But there are a lot of pluses for Alan. Malonga has been scoring goals, Scott Allan is looking like the player who showed so much at Dundee United as he tries to rebuild his reputation, Gray has been terrific game after game, while McGeouch was absolutely outstanding in the last derby.”
Hibs fans will be hoping the constant turmoil at Ibrox, this week’s stormy annual meeting and the placing of manager Ally McCoist on “gardening leave” after he handed in his notice will have a negative impact on the Rangers players now under Kenny McDowall’s care. However, Paterson believes those off-field issues are unlikely to come into play on Saturday. He said: “They will be strong, they’ll feel responsible for the results which led Ally to decide enough was enough and have them feeling they have something to prove. They did have that poor performance against Queen of the South and the Petrofac Cup defeat by Alloa, but I saw them against Raith Rovers when they won 4-1 and they were very good.
“And in the other cups, wins against Premiership opposition like Inverness Caley, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock show they get right up for the big matches, which Saturday’s game is shaping up to be.”