Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley today fired a warning to high-flying Rangers: You wrote us off last season – do so again at your peril.
The Easter Road outfit were cast as also-rans in last season’s Championship race after suffering a slow start but, although they failed to rein back title-winning Hearts, Alan Stubbs’ players did pip the Ibrox club to second place.
Now the Capital club find themselves in a similar position, Rangers’ turbo-charged start having prompted some to predict they’ll be champions by February while some west coast-based newspapers have even debated just what’s needed for the Ibrox club to compete with Glasgow rivals Celtic at the top of next season’s Premiership.
But, Oxley insisted, all such talk has been totally ignored by him and his team-mates. He said: “That’s the job of the press, to write stories. We’ll just concentrate on our job. We are happy to stay under the radar. Last season it was all Hearts and Rangers, people were writing us off.
“However, we clawed it back although we obviously didn’t get to where we wanted to be. We know in our dressing-room what we are capable of. We have set our targets as to what we want at the end of the season and hopefully we will get there.”
Sunday’s showdown has, of course, been a topic of conversation for a number of weeks, conveniently overlooking the fact both clubs had fixtures to fill in the interim, Hibs facing a particularly testing schedule with away trips to Falkirk – a rearranged game they had in hand over Rangers – and Raith Rovers, two sides boasting unbeaten home records.
Stubbs’ players emerged from those matches with a maximum six points, two hard-fought victories cutting the gap between themselves and Mark Warburton’s side to eight points and extending their own unbeaten run to ten games, results and performances which, Oxley insisted, has left them brimming with confidence.
He said: “Big games like this are the ones you want to play in, you can’t wait to play in them. But as the manager said before Saturday’s game, there’s no good talking about Rangers if we hadn’t set it up with a good win at Stark’s Park. I’m not sure it was a good win, but it was a win and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.
“Going away to Falkirk and then Raith were always going to be tough games, but we came through them and we’ve set ourselves up nicely for Sunday.”
Hibs temporarily trimmed Rangers’ advantage to five points with goals from John McGinn and Jason Cummings being enough to beat Raith, but Jason Holt’s strike 24 hours later against St Mirren allowed the Light Blues to edge that little bit further ahead once more.
Oxley said: “All we could do was win our game and hope it would put a little bit of pressure on them. We’ve said all along it’s not about what goes on outside our dressing-room, but what we do. From day one, no matter what result we’ve had, we’ve all stuck together and we are all pulling in the right direction.”
A Jon Daly header pulled Raith back into the match at the weekend but, as they had done at Falkirk a few days earlier, Stubbs’ players withstood all that the opposition could throw at them and that, Oxley claimed, shows just how resolute Hibs have become, only seven goals conceded in the league the second-best defensive record in Britain behind Sunday’s visitors.
The former Hull City player said: “People might think it is easy but they are actually under-estimating just how difficult it is when the ball is getting thrown in on top of you and they have a big lad winning his headers. But the lads in front of me were brilliant, they stood up to every challenge.”
Referee George Salmond added an extra nine minutes, the length of time questioned by Stubbs and an eternity as far as the travelling support were concerned as they watched their side hang on to claim a fourth straight victory. And that, Oxley insisted, is the difference between this season and last.
He said: “One thing I knew I had to improve was concentration. I think last year we conceded goals in the final ten minutes more than we wanted to and that’s something we have been looking to improve.
“I think we have more strength in depth than last year. The manager has options and we know as players we have to be on our toes. If you are playing as well as you can then you don’t give the manager a reason to take you out of the side. I think you can see that even in the lads who are coming on for ten minutes, they are giving their all to try to get a shirt for the next week and that can only be good for us.”
Oxely famously scored what proved to be the winning goal against Livingston on the opening day of last season and if he hasn’t quite emulated that feat, he can, at least, claim an assist for Cummings’ tenth of this campaign, his long clearance foxing the Raith defence as the 20-year-old took the ball down on his chest and lofted it over goalkeeper Keith Cuthbert who had earlier been beaten by McGinn’s thunderbolt.
“The pitch at Stark’s Park probably isn’t as big as Easter Road,” explained Oxley, “and there was a bit of wind behind my clearance that carried it through to Jason but the way he brought it down and put it over the keeper was magnificent.
“Jason is on fire. He did superbly last season and he seems to have taken it on into this season. He’s still young and still learning but he knows where he needs to improve his game and has been working hard at it and, as far as I am concerned, if he keeps his head down he can get to wherever he wants to get in the game.”
As good as Cummings’ goal was, though, Oxley rated McGinn’s stunning left-foot shot even better. He said: “John does that in training. He’s not scared to get on the ball and get a shot off. He’ll drag one yards wide but keeps going, that’s the good thing about him. It was probably the best goal we have scored this season.”