Steven Whittaker has insisted “keeping the head” was key to Hibs winning an explosive clash at Ibrox which saw Rangers midfielder Ryan Jack sent off and eight other players booked.
A war of words between boss Neil Lennon and his Rangers counterpart Pedro Caixinha erupted after the Capital club had fought back from losing a second-minute goal to win 3-2, a repeat of the scoreline the last time the two clubs met in the Scottish Cup final 15 months ago.
Those events at Hampden had overshadowed Hibs’ visit to Govan with Lennon, pictured inset, warning his players not to get caught up in all the hype. And that, claimed Whittaker, was exactly what they did.
He said: “The manager wanted us to keep our cool. We’d been playing great pre-season and it was a matter of taking that on to the pitch. We knew it would be heated at times but his message was to keep our cool, to keep steady and do what we have been doing.”
Whittaker admitted he and his team-mates had found themselves under the cosh after Alfredo Morelos headed Rangers in front, former Hibs striker Kenny Miller seeing a first-time effort from goalkeeper Ofir Marciano’s wayward clearances drift just wide and another shot come back off the post before Simon Murray, with his tenth goal of the season, hauled Hibs level.
Jack saw red for an alleged head-butt on Hibs’ Anthony Stokes in one of a number of flashpoints which marred the game before a James Tavernier own goal and a terrific strike from Lithuanian internationalist Vykintas Slivka gave Hibs a 3-1 lead before Tavernier cut the deficit with ten minutes remaining.
Whittaker said: “They were on top of us early doors – it wasn’t a great start. But we did not go under, we got a foothold in the game, grew into it, got a goal from Simon and we went from strength to strength.
“We went to Ibrox with a belief we could win. The manager demands results and performances and the boys are stepping up to the plate at the minute. Long may that continue.”
Whittaker admitted Lennon’s players were conscious of the fact referee John Beaton, having made the controversial decision to send Jack off, might take the opportunity to “even things up” with the tackles flying in and Hibs players Stokes and Dylan McGeouch having picked up bookings in the first half.
He said: “We were aware that sometimes that’s the case but we were able to stay in front and control the game with the extra man. We lost a goal with ten minutes to go and which might have invited pressure but we managed to see it out.”
Despite the presence of Lennon and Stokes, Whittaker found himself singled out for “special treatment” by the home fans for the way in which he left Rangers as they were enveloped in a financial meltdown which saw them banished to the fourth tier of Scottish football five years ago. But he brushed that aside, saying: “It’s the pantomime of football and the way fans see it. There’s nothing I can do about it, I can only have an effect on the pitch and that’s what I tried to concentrate on.”