Hibs skipper David Gray believes it’s inevitable that tonight’s play-off clash with Falkirk will involve plenty of needle because there’s so much at stake for both clubs.
There’s been little between the two sides all season, three out of their four Championship matches ending in draws with Hibs winning the other thanks to a highly contentious penalty. Throughout there have been plenty of verbals not only between Hibs boss Alan Stubbs and his Falkirk counterpart Peter Houston but the players themselves as the rivals found themselves locked in a desperate battle for second place and a less arduous play-off schedule.
But it was the Bairns who clinched second place in the table thanks to goal difference after the teams had found themselves level on 70 points.
As such Peter Houston’s players have enjoyed a break of nine days while Hibs were battling their way through a nail-biting double-header against Raith Rovers. Now two more games will decide whether it’s Hibs or Falkirk who will fight it out with Kilmarnock for the right to be playing Premiership football next season.
And that, conceded Gray, will ensure a relentless match tonight and again when the sides meet for a second time in Falkirk on Friday. He said: “It’s a play-off game, a massive game and there should be a little bit of needle. As professionals, both sets of players will be desperate to win the game and if that’s not there, there’s something wrong.”
The last time the two sides met Falkirk fought back from being 2-0 at Easter Road to snatch a draw, a result which prompted wild celebrations among their players, something which caused Stubbs to observe in the aftermath of that game that celebrations were for the end of May, not that time.
Gray, however, insisted he had no quibble with the Falkirk players’ reaction that night saying: “Listen, they were 2-0 down and down to ten men but came back to draw 2-2. I think that’s a good result for them, so they’re allowed to celebrate if they get the right result.
“In the same way, we would like to celebrate if we get the right results. It’s not something I am overly fussed about, to be honest.”
Tonight’s match will be Hibs’ 52nd of the season but, Gray insisted, there’s no chance of him or his team-mates running out of steam as they bid for promotion at the second time of asking with, of course, the small matter of having the chance to end the club’s 114 year wait for the Scottish Cup.
The right back said: “The objective is to get promoted and hopefully we have another four play-off games to come and the cup final. It’s the business end of the season and we are all looking forward to it.
“That’s the way it has been for the last six to eight weeks. There have been a lot of big games but we have a squad that has shown it is capable of dealing with that. The big games are quite easy to get yourself up for, so we are looking forward to it. Everybody wants to play in these games and we are ready for them.
“There’s no chance of running out of steam, especially if you are winning games. It is much easier to recover and look forward to the next one if you’ve had a good result. Sometimes you doctor the training a bit, to gear it around the games and we are on a good run of form at the minute.”
Gray believes the fact Hibs are unbeaten against Falkirk this season can only be a positive, but insisted Stubbs’ players will have to be at the top of their game if they are to progress and play Kilmarnock either side of the cup final.
He said: “Having played them four times and they haven’t managed to beat us is a good thing, but if we don’t play as well as we can, they are capable of beating us. Everyone is expecting it to be a really close encounter and I am sure it will be.”
The outcome over the two games could simply come down to desire, and Gray went on: “It could come down to anything. It could come down to decisions, a bit of luck on the day. But we know if we pay as well as we can then we’re capable of beating anybody.
“So, if we turn up and produce the football we can then there should be no reason why we can’t get through the tie.”
And Gray insisted Hibs can’t afford to look any further forward than this week, that they have to ignore the thought of possibly facing Kilmarnock and of a second Hampden final of the season against Rangers.
He said: “I don’t think we fear anybody, but we can’t look past Falkirk. I know we’ve got the cup final and things to look forward to, so it still could be a fantastic season. But we can’t look any further than this game.”
A year ago Hibs were in the position Falkirk have found themselves in, a period of down time before becoming embroiled in the play-off action but, Gray insisted, he wouldn’t be able to say whether rest or continuing to play would be of benefit until after these two matches.
He said: “It’s always a good thing if you are playing and winning games. It was good to win at the weekend and to have the confidence to go into this one now.
“The flip side is people will say they are fresher but we’ve all played so many games this season that everybody is just looking forward to it. Adrenaline will get you through games and hopefully it’s a good thing that we are on a good run.”