He’s been there before but, Lewis Stevenson admitted today, it’s not going to make the trauma of going through another relegation showdown any easier – but he’s just thankful Hibs have one last chance to haul themselves clear of trouble.
Two years ago Stevenson and his Hibs team-mates flirted with the drop, their top-flight status on the line as they faced bottom club Dunfermline on the penultimate day of the season, the Pars arriving at Easter Road trailing the Capital club by five points but knowing they could turn up the heat with a victory. But Jim Jefferies’ side were blown away, Matt Doherty, Eoin Doyle and Garry O’Connor, from the penalty spot, all scoring in a blistering first 15 minutes with Paul Hanlon adding a fourth minutes from the end to complete the rout and allow a the vast majority of a 15,281 crowd to breathe a little more easily.
It was an experience the 26-year-old never thought he’d be subjected to again in his career, never mind barely 24 months later, but Hibs’ miserable season will culminate in a winner-takes-all battle with Kilmarnock tomorrow as the teams bid desperately to avoid the newly introduced relegation play-off.
A double-header against a Championship side does, of course, offer something of a safety net but, naturally, that’s a scenario all at Easter Road would very much like to sidestep while knowing only a victory over the Ayrshire club will allow them to do so.
The deduction of 15 points that Hearts suffered after crashing into administration proved too much for Gary Locke’s side to overcome, resulting in automatic demotion for the Jambos and, Stevenson admitted, probably saved Hibs, with only one win form their last 17 league matches, from that fate themselves.
However, that threat remains and can only be eradicated with a victory tomorrow, one which would instead leave Killie, a point in front of Hibs following their win against St Mirren on Wednesday just 24 hours after Ross County had inflicted yet another defeat on Butcher’s players, dicing with the drop.
“It’s a horrible position to be in,” admitted Stevenson. “We have no-one to blame but ourselves, but the run of results we have had makes us lucky to still be in with a chance of missing the play-offs. Any other season and we would probably have been done. We’ve had a few chances to dig ourselves out of this hole and haven’t taken them.
“Around Christmas time we were doing well, we were in a great position, not even looking over our shoulder to see who was behind us. But since them we have let ourselves down all over the pitch. We haven’t scored enough goals, we’ve not defended well.
“We’ve started games well as we did up in Dingwall the other night as we had in the previous two matches against Hearts and Partick Thistle, but we’ve failed to capitalise when we’ve been on top and have then been hit with a sucker punch which has left us chasing the game far too often. “I think it’s also fair to say we don’t seem to have had much luck go our way this season, some big decisions seem to have gone against us.
“There’s not much the gaffer has been able to say about it, he’s been as disappointed as the rest of us. It’s obviously hard for him, I don’t imagine for one minute that when he made the switch from Inverness Caley to us he envisaged things unfolding as they have. He’s tried everything to get the best out of us, he’s been good to us and I feel we owe him a performance.
“We have one last bite of the cherry and we have to take it.”
The build-up to the lunchtime kick-off will be an anxious, nervy time for all involved, Stevenson recalling the tense moments before running out to face Dunfermline.
He said: “The hour-and-a-half after you arrive at the stadium is probably the worst bit. The time seems to take ages to pass, you are trying to focus on the game rather than anything else, practically playing it in your head beforehand, trying to remain calm and not wasting any nervous energy.
“You just want to get out there and play. Tomorrow will be like a cup final without the cup. We know we won’t be waiting on any other results, it’s all about what happens in our game. Win and we stay up, anything less won’t do.”
Stevenson, Hibs’ longest-serving player, appreciates how tough it has been to be a Hibs fan this season but, he insisted, the supporters, as disaffected as they might be, can play a huge role in again seeing Butcher’s players over the line, revealing how some of his then team-mates, many of whom like Tom Soares, Pa Kujabi, Doyle, Doherty and Jorge Claros had only been at the club a matter of months, were taken aback by the size of the crowd with the home fans outnumbering the travelling support of 1233 by around ten to one.
He said: “You could see when we were out warming up that it was going to be a big crowd and I think a few of the boys who hadn’t been at the club for long were surprised at just how full the ground was, they weren’t expecting so many.
“That backing certainly helped and I don’t know if it perhaps got to Dunfermline a bit because we certainly got off to a dream start with Matt scoring in the fourth minute then Eoin and Garry getting their goals so quickly, it meant the game was more or less over in only quarter-of-an-hour.
“I’m not expecting it to be anything like that tomorrow. Killie have experienced players who won’t be fazed by the crowd, but knowing we’ll have so many fans behind us will help. It’s a hard thing to explain, but you get that extra little boost, you are a yard quicker, your shots seem to have a bit more power, you have a bit more spring when jumping and you’re harder in the tackle.
“I’d also expect Killie to bring a fair support of their own, but it is down to us. We’d like to get into a comfortable position but while we’ll be going into the game with our tails up if the winner comes in the last minute then no-one will be complaining.”
Hibs have reduced prices for tomorrow’s game (kick-off 12.15pm) to £15 (adults) and £5 (concessions).