The six-game sequence which will determine whether or not Hibs will play Premiership football next season kicks off in Dumfries tonight.
Queen of the South will host Rangers at teatime while Alan Stubbs’ players are busy packing their cases for a week in the La Manga sunshine. Upon return from their warm-weather training camp in south-east Spain, Hibs’ preparations will be stepped up further for a two-legged semi-final against whoever emerges from that intriguing Queens/Rangers quarter-final.
Craig Barr, the Raith Rovers defender who has seen all three teams at close quarters in the Championship this season, believes Hibs will be facing a first-leg trip to Palmerston on Wednesday, May 20.
“I can see Queens beating Rangers,” he said. “They’ll really fancy themselves. Queens have gone under the radar. They’ll be happy to be underdogs, with Rangers and Hibs having all the history, and they’ll be telling the press that. But behind closed doors, they’ll be quietly confident that they can beat Rangers over two legs.
“I think they’ll beat Rangers at Palmerston and then hold out at Ibrox. They’ve got a couple of strikers who link up well and score goals. Their defence has been very good and they’ll deal with a lot of cross balls from Rangers. They’re dangerous from set-plays, which could come in handy.
“Derek Lyle and Gavin Reilly link-up well in attack and my old Livingston team-mate Iain Russell plays wide and is also really dangerous cutting in. They’re the three key players that’ll need to be watched by Rangers and Hibs.”
Rangers beat Raith in all four league meetings this season, but Barr, himself a supporter of the Ibrox club, is not convinced that they are strong enough to deal with the burden of expectation they will have to carry in the play-offs.
“Rangers have been our bogey team and have put us away convincingly so it’s a bit bizarre that I think they’ll lose to Queens,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of experience and more quality than Queens so they’re not without a chance, but there will be a lot of pressure on them and I can see the mental side of it favouring Queens. Rangers also seem to have a mental block when it comes to the astro at Palmerston. It’s not just about who has the better team on paper. Queens have been together a long time and have a real togetherness.”
Barr believes Hibs, who completed their league campaign with five straight victories, are better equipped than Rangers, who won only one of their last four, to get the better of James Fowler’s underdogs if they were to meet in the semi-final.
“From the games we’ve played, we’ve picked up the least amount of points against Rangers, more against Queens and then the most against Hibs, But, ironically, I can see it going the other way in the play-offs,” said the Edinburgh-born Raith player. “Of those three teams, I’ve got Hibs as favourites, Queens second and Rangers third. I think Hibs’ quality would shine through against Queens.
“I was injured at the start of the season so I’ve watched Hibs from the stand and then played against them later in the season. They have been the best team to watch, definitely the most entertaining. Their two full-backs, David Gray and Lewis Stevenson, have been brilliant all season, pushing on all the time, and their midfield has been good to watch with their rotation, link-up and movement.
“You don’t need me to tell you that Scott Allan is their main man. I’ve never followed the Premiership that closely so I didn’t know too much about him before this season, but as soon as I saw him play you could tell he was a player.
“He was good to watch from the stands, but not so good when you’re playing against him because you know he can just pop anything down the side or behind you at any minute. He’s their key player, but Dylan McGeouch is also brilliant alongside him. He goes under the radar a bit because he’s playing beside Allan, but he’s also good at tracking back and doing the dirty work.”
The one concern Barr has about Hibs is their occasional inability to make their superiority count.
This was evident in three of the four games Raith have played against them this season and also in the recent Scottish Cup semi-final, when the Easter Road side were hit by a sucker-punch winner from Falkirk after controlling much of the match.
“If being critical, in the games they’ve played against us, they dominated a lot of the games in terms of possession and chances but we ended up getting a win and two draws against them.
“They weren’t clinical enough in terms of taking their chances. The longer the games against us went on, the less likely they looked to score.
“We just hung on and they got frustrated. They could easily have had 12 points from the three games against us this season but instead we picked up five against them. That was just because they didn’t take their chances against us. Whoever they’re playing, it’s massive for Hibs to get an early goal so that doesn’t happen to them in the play-offs.
“If they do get an early goal, with their defence and the players they’ve got in midfield, I would expect them to coast through, but the longer it goes on, the more they could struggle.”
It remains to be seen which current Premiership team will contest the play-off final – Motherwell remain the favourites – but, regardless, when all is said and done, Barr expects Hibs to be back in the Premiership by the end of May.
“I think Hibs would beat the Premiership team if they get to the final,” he said. “When it comes to the play-offs, I think the ascendancy is with the teams who are in form and looking to come up as opposed to a team which has struggled all season. The morale and self-confidence you’re going to have from trying to win a game to go into the Premiership as opposed to the fear of having it all to lose would be massive.”
So there we have it: Hibs will return from La Manga, beat Queen of the South in the semi and then waltz past whichever Premiership team comes in their way in the final.