To a fair extent, the players who take to the pitch for Hibs this Sunday will be those who trudged off Easter Road disconsolate barely two months ago, their place in the Scottish Premiership gone and the Championship beckoning.
However, today, the Capital club’s new head coach Alan Stubbs insisted the fans who turn up for the pre-season friendly with Dundee United will see an entirely different team to that which lost a traumatic penalty shoot-out with to top-flight replacements Hamilton Accies.
Since arriving in Edinburgh as successor to the axed Terry Butcher, Stubbs has repeatedly stated that, while he fully understands the hurt and anger which has festered among the Hibs support over the past few weeks, what has happened has happened, he can’t influence the past, but can look to the future with optimism.
Restoring the players’ battered confidence has been high on his list of priorities. Stubbs has contended that, over the course of Hibs’ pre-season campaign so far – games against Vale of Leithen, Berwick Rangers, Dunfermline and Stirling Albion have been negotiated without conceding a goal – there has been a “drastic improvement among his squad, the players, in his estimation, showing a real desire to put into place what he wants to see.
United, of course, represent a step up in opposition. Jackie McNamara’s side just missed out on a European place last season and are regarded as one of those who will be scrapping at the top end of the Premiership. Sunday’s match (kick-off 2pm), also marks a significant day for Stubbs himself, his first game in charge at Easter Road. It’s a moment which, he admitted, he will always remember just as he will Innerleithen’s Victoria Park where he clocked up his very first match in a managerial role. As memorable an occasion as it might be, however, Stubbs is adamant the day belongs not to him but his players. He said: “The fact it’s my first game at Easter Road is very significant, one that will obviously stay with me. But it is not about me, I must stress that. It’s about the players. If we can prepare the players right, which is what we are doing at this momen, then it’s one for the fans to get right behind them.
“There is a different mindset in the players. They are right behind what we are doing and the one thing I can guarantee from them, first and foremost, is they’ll be giving 100 per cent. That’s an important thing to emphasise. It’s the same players but I think, at the same time, the fans will see different players.”
Hibs and United had hoped to be playing Watford over this weekend but were left without a fixture when the English Championship outfit had a change of heart, but Stubbs claimed both he and McNamara will get exactly what they are looking for from the 90 minutes.
He said: “It made sense and I think it will be ideal for both of us. I am looking for a very competitive game and it’s an important one as we step towards what we are all building up to. Obviously, it takes on more importance because it’s our first game in front of our own fans and, from that point of view, it takes on more relevance.
“But now we are looking for that real edge and sharpness, the little differences that lead us up to the start of the season. The heat is starting to be turned up, that competition for places with everything being geared towards August 5 and Rangers.”
New signing Scott Allan has a chance of facing his former club if Stubbs and his backroom staff feel the midfielder has shown enough in training to convince them he is ready to play. Veteran striker Paul Heffernan, who has yet to kick a ball in anger as he recovers from a thigh problem, will miss out again, but is edging closer to full fitness.
Stubbs said: “We did a little bit with Scott yesterday and we will assess him over the next couple of days and see how he is. The next day or two should give us an indication as to whether he is ready to play.
“Paul has stepped up his training, building to a fitness where he will be able to join in. If everything keeps going well and there is no reaction, that will possibly be next week.”