Danny Swanson believes last weekend’s match against Partick Thistle was probably more nerve-wracking for him and his Easter Road team-mates than the prospect of today’s clash with Rangers at Ibrox.
The first match between the clubs since the Capital outfit’s historic Scottish Cup victory 15 months ago has been eagerly anticipated, the Govan ground having sold out almost a fortnight ago with the atmosphere certain to be electric.
But Swanson reckons Hibs’ first top-flight fixture in three years was probably a greater test of the nerve of Neil Lennon’s players as they overcame the loss of an early goal to defeat Partick 3-1 before more than 17,000 at Easter Road.
He said: “I think it was just as big as today. It was a nervous time for the boys and I think the start of the game showed that. You could see it.
“It was the first Premiership game in years and just as big as today. To get off to a wining start against a good Partick side was massive.”
The fall-out from that day at Hampden when thousands of Hibs fans invaded the pitch on the final whistle and some of the unsavoury scenes which developed between both sets of supporters and resulted in dozens of arrests will undoubtedly be an undercurrent this afternoon.
Swanson, though, insisted it will have no bearing on events at Ibrox while admitting that, like every Hibs fan, he has fond memories even if he was on holiday, revealing the national stadium hadn’t been kind to him as a supporter down the years. He said: “It was a special day, a massive day for the club and me personally. It was great for my friends like Darren [McGregor] to be part of that day. It was pretty emotional, if I’m honest, but it’s where you go from there. We have to put it on the back-burner.
“This is a new season, two different teams – they are very different – and the Scottish Cup final is not something we are thinking about. It’s just another league game for us.”
Swanson agreed, however, that an even greater rivalry probably now exists between the clubs’ supporters, saying: “I think that’s a good thing for Scottish football. It’s two massive clubs battling against each other. But, as players, it’s a different mindset.
“The manager gives you a game-plan and you need to go and execute it. Both teams are confident and it should make for a good game.”
Lennon has already stressed to his players the need not to get caught up in the hype surrounding the match and, while admitting his manager was “maybe a bit different as a player”, Swanson added: “He is quite good at keeping us cool.
“He keeps us grounded and that’s something he always emphasises, to keep cool and not be over-emotional. That’s a big part of the game, don’t get too involved and focus on our football. Obviously, we will need to battle and defend at times and see it out without the ball at times, but we have a lot of big-game players in our team.
“There will be times when we need to defend, but we have a real threat on the counter if we are sitting in. We have real pace and quality and with someone like [Anthony] Stokes coming in, he has done it before and can hopefully do it again.”
The small pocket of Hibs fans tucked away in the far corner of Ibrox will be outnumbered many times over by the home support but, insisted Swanson, that can be used to the Capital club’s advantage.
Recalling previous trips to the ground as a St Johnstone player, he said: “Tommy Wright used to say to us ‘get the fans on their back’. That’s what you need to do at times, slow the game down. Their fans are very demanding, they need to win every game regardless of their squad.
“This isn’t the best Rangers squad they’ve ever had but they still have some very good players like Kenny Miller and Lee Wallace. They will feel pressure if things aren’t going well, the fans could get on their backs.”
As a boyhood Hibs fan, Swanson used to enjoy watching Miller play in a green-and-white jersey and, he admitted, he marvels at the veteran striker’s longevity. He said: “I used to sit in the East Stand watching him when he was a young boy. It’s incredible how he is still performing at that level – he’s still the top man. Everything they do, it goes through him, he’s a top professional.
“His quality is there and it’s like he’s changed his game from when he was a younger player. It’s a bit like what Ronaldo has done at Real Madrid, he doesn’t have the pace he used to have but he has a brain that’s ahead of a lot of others.”
Lennon is already on record as saying he wants to see his side compete to be “best of the rest” behind Celtic and Swanson believes a top four-finish at least is well within Hibs’ capabilities. He said: “This squad is the best I’ve ever been involved with in my career, even in the Championship in England. We need to aim as high as we can.”