Hibs boss: I'll need big attitudes as crunch games begin
So near and yet so far. After 36 matches just two goals separated Hibs from finishing second in the Championship for the second year in succession, winning their last two games and scoring six in the process not enough to overhaul Falkirk and so ensure a less strenuous play-off schedule.
But while many will point to the chances missed over the past few days against Dumbarton and Queen of the South, not to mention outstanding performances from goalkeepers Jamie Ewings and James Atkinson, deep down Easter Road fans will know that it’s results such as losing to already relegated Alloa Athletic or throwing away a two-goal lead against the Bairns which resulted in them have to settle for third place.
And with it they now face two extra games in their bid to win promotion second time round, meaning a punishing programme of seven games – counting the Scottish Cup final against Rangers – in just 20 days, starting with in-form Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park on Wednesday night.
However, as far as Alan Stubbs is concerned those two more matches are all that’s changed, the Hibs head coach adamant he has the squad and the momentum to cope with a calendar which will see them play Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday, Friday, Tuesday, Saturday and Tuesday if the Capital side do manage to go all the way.
“You cannot look at playing three games in two days and start feeling sorry for yourself,” insisted Stubbs, “It’s the same for all three teams. It is what it is.
“We have played eight or nine games in one month. We’ve not been complaining about it. We are going to have to do it again.”
Having watched his side stutter their way through late February and March when four straight league defeats ended all talk of the title and began to put a huge question mark against whether or not Hibs might even end up fourth, Stubbs believes recent performances leave his players in good stead for the play-offs.
And he visibly bridled at the suggestion third might have been seen as failure, saying: “How is being in the play-offs failure whether you are second, third or fourth. You still get the chance of one prize.
“We only missed out on second by two goals. Falkirk have done fantastic this season. We’re in the play-offs and two cup finals so I think that’s not bad, eh?
“So if you want to judge me then judge me on the big picture. And I think we have done okay to get to two cup finals, that would be fair to say.
“I’m not going to turn around and say we did not want to finish second, of course we did. But everybody knew what the next best was to that and we now have two extra games.
“We’re going into them in good form. It’s a real different mix what we are going into now because it’s a knockout, over two games rather than the one. We will prepare and be ready for Wednesday.
“More often than not when we’ve had big games it’s lifted the players. We have got seven cup finals now, literally. It’s great. I said to the players at the end: this is a really exciting period. It is not pressurised. Pressure is when you are fighting relegation.
“When you are trying to win something, that is what you want to do as a player and coach, it’s big games, big attitudes, big appetites. That is what we have to prepare for.”
Although performances and results had picked up recently, Hibs had gone into their final two games knowing that they needed not only points but goals, and lots of them, Falkirk having scored seven more.
More than half of that advantage was wiped out against Dumbarton but even so the feeling was Hibs would still be in need of the Bairns faltering in some way in their final game with Morton – although another four goals allied to a 1-0 win for Falkirk would have seen them pip Peter Houston’splayers by virtue of a better head-to-head record.
As it transpired Falkirk got that single-goal victory but four proved too many for Hibs who were unable to engineer an early breakthrough as they had done a few days earlier with those two James Keatings strikes in the space of the opening 13 minutes.
Instead they found themselves up against a Dumfries outfit, as caretaker manager Gary Skelton admitted, intent on not being “turned over” while hoping they might get an opportunity themselves.
“We knew Hibs would have a right go,” revealed Skelton, “They are a top side with good movement and they did cause us problems but I thought we defended very well.
“People talking of Hibs taking four off us did act as a motivation and I thought we were disciplined. Their work rate and commitment were fantastic.”
Throughout the first half Hibs perhaps made it that bit easier for Queens, lacking in tempo and appearing somewhat pedestrian although goalkeeper Atkinson found himself busy enough, surpassing the saves he made in that period with a terrific effort to prevent Keatings opening the scoring early in the second half when left one-on-one by John McGinn’s pass.
The news that Paul Watson had fired Falkirk ahead subdued the home support even further but a red card for Queens’ Mark Millar for cynically scything down McGinn as he raced past him put a slightly different complexion onaffairs.
“It was probably a bit harsh,” argued Skelton. “But he gave the referee a decision to make. Had he pulled his shirt he’d probably have got a booking but the sending off changed the game as they scored not long after.”
It was defender Niklas Gunnarsson who made the breakthrough, bundling Liam Henderson’s cross in from close range with just enough time on the clock to rekindle hope among the home support.
And as Hibs mounted a late charge, top scorer Jason Cummings stepped from the bench to nod Martin Boyle’s cross home for his 25th goal of the season, but unfortunately it proved too little too late as far as the Edinburgh side were concerned.
Stubbs, though, insisted he was happy enough, saying: “I said to the players before the game ‘Don’t give anyone any excuses to point the finger at you for not doing your part’.
“We’ve done it, we’ve got three points. It wasn’t enough in terms of goals in the end. I thought there were goals in it for us. There wasn’t really any threat from them on our goal.
“We had a few chances. We could have scored more and Falkirk could have chased it and got a second. You just never know.
“But we’ve done our bit and we go into Wednesday and Saturday in good form.”