Tam McManus believes Sunday’s match between Falkirk and Hibs is one neither side can afford to lose if they are to keep their Championship title dream alive.
The Bairns and Hibs are locked together in second place in the table, three points adrift of leaders Rangers, with Peter Houston’s side enjoying a superior goal difference.
But with Rangers warm favourites to increase their advantage to six points as they take on Livingston at Ibrox on Saturday, McManus insisted the following day’s game between two of his old clubs could prove make-or-break as they chase that one automatic promotion place.
McManus, now 34, said: “Hibs have a game in hand over Falkirk so should they win on Sunday and then go on to beat Morton in that outstanding fixture then you could see the Bairns start to drift off the pace, although I’d still expect them to finish a comfortable third.
“However, if Falkirk get the three points, then the pressure will all be on Hibs to go to Cappielow at the start of next month. It’s shaping to be a massive weekend in the Championship, as you’d expect Rangers to win at home to Livingston.
“I think all the pressure is on Rangers especially, and then Hibs, whereas Falkirk can afford to relax a bit. I don’t think there’s any pressure on them. To be in the position they are in is fantastic. They are on a terrific [ten-game unbeaten] run that they’ll want to keep going and to be talked of being in the Championship title race is credit to Peter Houston, the players and everyone at the club.”
To emphasise just how tight the title battle is, McManus pointed out that while Rangers have only lost to Hibs and Falkirk, the Bairns’ only defeats have come at the hands of those two rivals, while two out of Hibs’ three defeats this season have been at the hands of Rangers, the other being an opening-day reversal at Dumbarton.
After this weekend Falkirk will still have to play Rangers twice, while both of them will travel to Easter Road once more before the season is over.
McManus said: “The way things stand, the title might just be decided by the outcome of the head-to-heads between the three of them and that’s making the Championship the most exciting league in Scotland.
“You’d imagine Celtic will probably win the Premiership in a canter. Aberdeen have had a go, but in the Championship you have three clubs pushing each other all the way.”
However, having said that, McManus, who is still playing football with Gartcairn Juniors while doing his coaching badges alongside some media work, believes the key to Falkirk’s challenge will be keeping the core of their team fit given the larger budgets of Rangers and Hibs have seen them strengthen their squads already this month.
McManus, who watched Hibs new boys Niklas Gunnarsson and Chris Dagnall play as the Capital side eased past Raith Rovers in the Scottish Cup last weekend, said: “Rangers and Hibs, as we have seen, have the finances to bring players in while, I’d imagine, Falkirk will probably be looking more to the loan market.
“Keeping those 12, 13 or 14 players fit and healthy will be vital for Falkirk if they are to go the distance, but to me they’ve been on a brilliant run of form going back to last season’s Scottish Cup final, which they were perhaps a bit unlucky to lose.
“They were probably a bit disappointed not to make the play-offs last season and while I don’t know for certain, I’d think Peter Houston probably had that as a target this time round. They are going to do that comfortably because there’s such a gap between the top three and the restm but for them to be bang in the title race is incredible.
“Peter Houston managed to keep the nucleus of last season’s team together. In fact, guys like Blair Alston and Craig Sibbald, who I played with when I was with Falkirk in 2011, are still there. Both of them are young players, but they’ll each have played 150 games or more. Then you’ve got Peter Grant at the back and, for me, the key man in midfield in Will Vaulks. It’s little wonder a lot of clubs are said to be looking at him.”
However, it is up front where McManus believes Houston has proved to be a very shrewd operator, teaming up John Baird with Lee Miller, a pairing with plenty of experience.
He said: “It’s something of the classic little and large partnership, but it’s working.
“Baird is a player I’ve always liked. He’s bounced around a few clubs and has always got goals, but he seems to be enjoying himself at Falkirk, the atmosphere in the dressing room and the manager he is player under. He’s definitely their talisman at the moment and one Hibs will have to keep quiet.”
Firepower is something Hibs don’t lack, with Jason Cummings, last season’s top scorer in the Championship, having claimed 16 so far. Stubbs is also able to call on the likes of Dominique Malonga, James Keatings, Martin Boyle, Henri Anier, Islam Feruz and new signing Dagnall, the head coach’s argument being you can never have enough strikers.
That’s a philosophy McManus himself shares – to an extent. He said: “I think you try to have four or five to have cover when you are playing two up front as Hibs are doing, but to have six, seven or eight and the rumour that Anthony Stokes – who would be some signing – might also be coming to Hibs, means it can be a struggle to keep them all happy if some are not getting a regular game.”
But as impressive as that array of strikers might be, McManus admitted he’s been taken by Hibs’ defensive record, the clean sheet recorded by Mark Oxley at Stark’s Park his 14th of the season, while seven matches have been won 1-0.
McManus said: “That’s a statistic you wouldn’t normally associate with Hibs. They’ve always been a team that scored a lot but also conceded. But now they seem to have a bit of steel through the spine of the team. The keeper is confident, Paul Hanlon and Liam Fontaine are doing well and Marvin Bartley is a big player for them in the middle of the park.
“I’ve seen Hibs a few times this season and I think the first half against Raith was the poorest I’ve seen, but obviously Alan Stubbs kicked a few backsides at half-time. There was a completely different attitude in the second 45 minutes and in the end they won pretty comfortably.
“Sunday, though, it’s back to getting points. Hibs and Falkirk look evenly matched, so while it should be an exciting game, I’d expect it to be another close one. I’m sure Falkirk would have been disappointed to have drawn 1-1 at Easter Road having been in the lead against ten men and the game deep into added-on time.
“But Hibs have shown they can dig in and get late goals to pick up points that have looked beyond them. They’re a team that will keep going to the final whistle, something Falkirk know full well from that game not so long ago.”