It’s ten years since Hibs last managed to beat Rangers three times in succession but today the man who sparked that run, Ivan Sproule, urged Alan Stubbs’ players to seize the chance to make a little bit of history of their own.
The Northern Ireland winger will live forever more in the folklore of Easter Road, announcing his arrival in Scottish football with a stunning hat-trick at Ibrox – the first Hibs player to score one against the Glasgow club in 100 years.
If the home crowd were stunned that day then Sproule, who had been plucked from the obscurity of the tiny Irish club Institute for only £5000 by Tony Mowbray a few months earlier, then so too was at least one of his team-mates, Garry O’Connor reputedly remarking to his manager “What’s he going to do” as he was replaced 23 minutes from time.
A 2-1 win at home and a 3-0 Scottish Cup triumph in Govan followed in quick order, that achievement in season 2005-06 itself remarkable given some 30 years had elapsed since the Capital club could boast such a record against Rangers.
Now Hibs head for Glasgow tomorrow with confidence sky-high and seeking a third straight league win which would lift them into second place in the table after having beaten the beleaguered Glasgow club 3-1 on their home turf and then proceed to demolish them 4-0 in Edinburgh.
That league is, of course, now the Championship rather than the top flight of Scottish football but nevertheless Sproule insisted Stubbs’ players would still deserve great credit should they emerge victorious again.
Still playing in his homeland with Linfield although a chipped patella currently has him sidelined, the 33-year-old said: “Rangers are still one of the most successful clubs in Europe so you have to give them the respect they deserve on the pitch.”
However, having said that, Sproule admitted the current Rangers side is a pale shadow of those he faced during his years in a green-and-white shirt while, in his estimation, his old club are “on the up” under Stubbs.
He said: “I still keep an eye on Hibs and they’ve been getting some good results of late and hopefully that will continue tomorrow night. I watched the 4-0 game the other week and Hibs really rolled Rangers over that day, some of the young boys in the team excelled themselves and, at the moment, I honestly think Hibs are going one way and Rangers the other.
“I don’t think Rangers people are seeing the side they expect to see at the moment. Maybe I am having a bit of a pop, but that’s just the way I see it. I don’t know what is going on in their changing room. It’s a massive club with massive tradition but who knows, perhaps what’s going on off the field is filtering through to the players who already know they are playing in front of much smaller crowds than they’d usually expect.”
While Rangers are a club in turmoil, making headlines more often on the front pages of newspapers than the back, Hibs also had their problems after following the shock of relegation last season as Stubbs set about rebuilding the squad and restoring at least a measure of self-belief to those who had suffered as they headed for the drop.
Now, though, Sproule sees highly-promising signs. He said: “Like everyone else, I just didn’t see relegation coming and even now I don’t think anyone can properly explain why it happened. Hibs are a massive player in Scottish football, the infrastructure they have in the stadium and the training ground is fantastic.
“Being relegated isn’t at all pleasant, you can understand why the fans were so angry but sometimes in football taking a step back allows you to move forward. They’d been struggling to make the top six in the past two or three seasons but now things look to be on the up again.
“These things do take time for the manager to get the team he wants but Alan Stubbs seems to have done that quite quickly. He’s attracted a number of talented young players to the club to go with the good standard of youngster that Hibs always seem to produce themselves.
“It was a difficult background when he came in but Alan will have known from his time with Celtic what a fantastic club he was taking charge of and, credit to him, he seems to have done a fantastic job so far. Hopefully that will continue and, given time, he’ll build a close-knit changing room into something a bit special.”
In the meantime, winning immediate promotion to the Premiership is the priority – although Hibs retain more than a passing interest in this season’s Scottish Cup competition – with the play-offs looking by far the most likely route given the outstanding campaign arch-rivals Hearts have enjoyed under Robbie Neilson.
Sproule said: “You have to give credit to Hearts, they’ve been up there from day one. They keep producing the results and that suggests the title is theirs if they keep doing the business.
“Hibs are a long way back and the target has to be making the play-offs. Given the start they had to the season I think most fans would have taken that. Now, though, they are in a terrific run of form and if they can keep that going over the next few months then that goal should be achievable.”
Finishing second would reduce the number of games Hibs would need to play from six to four but, having had first-hand experience of the play-offs in England, Sproule believes the incentive of promotion would easily spur the players on regardless of how many matches it might take them.
Missing out on stepping up to the English Premier League remains, Sproule admits, his one huge regret in football, Bristol City – where he was a team-mate of Hibs defender Liam Fontaine – losing out to Hull City in a Wembley final in 2008, having defeated Crystal Palace in a two-legged semi-final.
A CIS Cup winner with Hibs, he said: “I don’t have many regrets, but that was one of the biggest, that I never made it to the Premier League. You’ve worked hard all season and all you get is a big smack in the face. It would be a wee bit ironic if, having been relegated through the introduction of the play-offs in Scotland last season, Hibs were to go straight back up via the same route but I’m sure the boys won’t mind whether they play four or six games to get there. Doing it will be all that matters.”