If Rangers fail to beat Hearts at Tynecastle tomorrow, Neil Lennon’s side can wrap up their eighth successive title the following day by beating Hibs and so sparking a party for the 3800 Celtic fans who’ll descend on Leith in anticipation of doing so.
It’s a scenario former Hibs skipper Ian Murray remembers all too well having been forced to look on as Rangers clinched the 2009/10 title at Easter Road thanks to an early strike from Kyle Lafferty.
Murray, now manager of League One Airdrieonians, recalled: “It’s a horrible feeling, all you can do is troop off and leave them to it.
“What more can you do? You are disappointed at having lost the game in the first place but you have to respect the other team and what they have achieved. It’s a case of taking that disappointment inside with you as quickly as possible and hope you never have that feeling again.
“Everyone knows Celtic are going to win the league, but no-one will want it to be when they are playing against them.
“I’m sure if Neil and his players had the choice they’d prefer to win it at home in front of a packed Celtic Park but they’ll also want to get it wrapped up as quickly as possible and then be able to start looking towards the cup final and trying to take another treble.”
Avoiding an Old Firm title showdown always appears to be uppermost in the minds of those drawing up the post-split fixture list and having Rangers at Tynecastle followed by Celtic at Easter Road would seem to have been designed to help in that regard, with the Glasgow sides not due to meet again until the penultimate round of games when, unless Lennon’s players suffer a catastrophic run of results, everything will be done and dusted.
Hibs, however, did manage to delay Celtic’s title party this time last year, goals from Jamie Maclaren and Vykintas Slivka earning them a 2-1 win as they continued a superb run of form which ultimately saw them finish fourth and so qualify for the Europa League.
The same carrot is again being dangled before Heckingbottom’s players who have overcome the odds to take a place in the top six having taken 20 out of the 24 points on offer during their eight league games under the former Barnsley and Leeds United manager, his only defeat having come in the cup as Lennon returned to Easter Road for the first time following his sudden and as yet unexplained departure from Hibs following two-and-a-half years in charge.
A derby victory at Tynecastle last time out hoisted Hibs above capital rivals Hearts and just four points behind Kilmarnock and Aberdeen who occupy third and fourth places respectively, the two separated only on goal difference.
As such, Hibs are the obvious outsiders but Murray pointed to how quickly each club’s fortunes can change over the course of the next few weeks as the six of them go head-to-head, recalling how, nine years ago, he and his team-mates claimed a European slot despite winning just one of their final five games.
Rangers and Hearts inflicted further defeats before that memorable 6-6 draw against Motherwell at Fir Park was followed by a 2-0 win over Dundee United at Tannadice on the final day of the season, pipping the Steelmen to fourth place by a single point.
He said: “We’d started that season really well but results had dried up for us in the middle of the season but then we got that draw against Motherwell and the win over United. They were maybe distracted by the fact they had the Scottish Cup final the following weekend but, again, that wasn’t our problem.
“The difference today is that Hibs are on a fantastic run of form and will be going into these final five matches full of confidence.
“Tomorrow will probably be a really good test to see where they are and how far they have come since the cup game with Celtic. But it will be very difficult, you saw against Aberdeen last weekend the quality of players they have, the fantastic squad.”
Hibs will also know how Killie and the Dons have fared with the two meeting at Rugby Park tomorrow but, insisted Murray, they can’t allow results elsewhere to distract them.
He said: “Rangers know they need to win at Tynecastle which will be a very tough game for them but regardless of what bearing that result has on Sunday, Hibs have to focus on getting the three points, that’s crucial to staying above Hearts and then trying to catch Kilmarnock and Aberdeen.
“If they were to lose against Celtic and others pick up points then that challenge becomes even more difficult.”