Lewis Stevenson believes being put through the wringer has almost become an end-of-season ritual for Hibs as they begin the tortuous path to promotion.
Having lost out on second place in the Championship table, Alan Stubbs’ players must now negotiate six matches if they are to return to the Premiership at the second time of asking, the first of those games away to in-form Raith Rovers tonight.
It promises to be a nerve-racking journey if the Capital club can go all the way, Falkirk and then the top flight’s second-bottom club lying in wait should they overcome the Stark’s Park outfit in the first of potentially three double-headers, the second leg against Rovers scheduled for Easter Road on Saturday.
But, Stevenson revealed, he’s become accustomed to such scraps, only once in the last five years has he been able to breath easily as the season has begun to wind down.
This time last year Hibs lost their play-off semi-final to Rangers despite finishing ahead of the Ibrox club having been relegated via the same system the previous season. Seventh place the year before that had offered some respite, the two seasons prior to that seeing the beleaguered Easter Road club finish second and third-bottom respectively. They also had two Scottish Cup finals to prepare for in 2012 and 2013.
Stubbs’ players are now chasing success on two fronts with a Scottish Cup final against Rangers part of a punishing programme which, if all goes to plan, will have them playing seven games in just 20 days.
As he looked forward to facing his hometown club tonight, Stevenson admitted: “I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have a stressful end to the season, so I’m used to it now. It could be the best season I’ve had at Hibs if we do everything right, so you have to look at the positives.
“You just have to focus on the match itself. A lot of stuff goes on around you, but it’s just football matches at the end of the day. It’s what we’ve been trained to do since we were young. It’s going to be a football match that decides everything and we just have to be the better team over the two legs.”
The prospect of potentially seven more games in such a short space of time for a team which has already played 49 matches this season has raised questions as to whether Hibs can cope, but while he admitted he sometimes wonders how he’ll make it through the next 90 minutes, Stevenson believes the fact he and his team-mates have had midweek games virtually non-stop recently has steeled them for what lies ahead.
The 28-year-old said: “I think I’m just in the zone now. It feels almost natural to have two games in a week. We don’t train as much because we’re recovering, but we’ll be doing as much running over the course of two games – if not more – as we would in training anyway.
“We’ve got everything in place at the training ground to help us and we’re good to go. I feel as good as I’ve ever done. Sometimes before a game you think, ‘I don’t know if I can get through this today’, but as soon as it starts you are fine. We’ve been doing this for the last six weeks or so, so hopefully we can keep going.”
Head coach Stubbs has described the games Hibs face as “seven cup finals”, Stevenson agreeing there is that feel to the play-off matches while expressing the hope Hibs’ cup form this season – reaching the finals of both the League and Scottish Cups while defeating Premiership sides Aberdeen, Dundee United (twice), St Johnstone, Hearts and Inverness Caley along the way – will stand him and his team-mates in good stead.
The left-back said: “The games do have a cup feel to them. You feel the magnitude of them. There’s usually a good atmosphere and you feel the nerves. I’ll probably be nervous before the game, but I’m nervous before any game, whether it’s one like this or at home to Alloa or Dumbarton.
“I think nerves are a good thing. You need them to keep you concentrating.”
Although he believes the comparison to a cup final is legitimate, Stevenson believes the fact play-off matches are over two legs will require a slightly different approach.
He said: “It’s totally different to anything else you encounter. It’s a strange thing to approach. You can’t really go for it and you can’t sit in. You need to get the balance right.
“We want to win every game and we’ll try to do that. We’ve beaten them a couple of times this season, but we’ll need to play better than the last time we went to Kirkcaldy [a 2-1 loss].”
Stevenson revealed that while Hibs had an outside chance of overhauling Falkirk on goal difference going into their last match of the regular season against Queen of the South, Stubbs’ players realised when they failed to beat Morton three games ago that matters were out of their hands.
And rather than blame their failure to score more than the two they did against Queens, he admitted there were numerous instances over the course of the season which could be identified as having proved fatal to his side’s ambitions.
He said: “We could have got a couple of extra goals over the course of the season, but Falkirk deserved to finished second. We did that last season and it obviously didn’t work out. It’s easier to play four games than six, but we’ve finished third so we just have to get on with it. It’s going to be tough. Raith Rovers are on a great run of form and we’ll have to be at our best to beat them.”
While Hibs stuttered through late February and much of March, Stevenson believes he and his team-mates are rediscovering their earlier form, aided by the return after injury of players such as Fraser Fyvie and Liam Fontaine, while midfielder Dylan McGeouch made a cameo appearance at the weekend after suffering with a groin problem for much of the season.
Stevenson said: “I think in the last couple of games we’ve played pretty well, even if we didn’t score as many goals as we needed. We had to win the game and we did. We played quite well in spells.
“It’s great to have Dylan back and I thought he made a real impact when he came on. People know how important he’s been for us in the last couple of seasons and he could make a real difference for us in the games coming up.”
Stevenson acknowledged that Hibs could still enjoy a memorable end to the season by clinching promotion and ending the club’s 114-year Scottish Cup hoodoo, but admitted everything could also turn pear-shaped.
He said: “Getting to two cup finals is a great achievement for a Championship side, but I don’t think I’d remember the season too fondly if we came away with nothing. It could be one of our best ever seasons if we get it right.”