It may look from the outside as if everything is in a state of flux for teams entering the end-of-season play-offs, but Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs has planned meticulously for every eventuality over the next month or so.
As things stand, it is unclear how long the Easter Road side will have between the last league game and the first play-off match – one week or two. It is also unclear how long a summer break the players will enjoy. And, most crucially of all, it is not yet known which division the team will be playing in next season.
Stubbs, however, has been busy putting together plans for all possible outcomes. One of those is a trip to sunnier climes if Hibs finish second in the Championship and earn themselves a two-week break between next weekend’s game at Falkirk and the first leg of the play-off semi-final, which would be against Rangers or Queen of the South, a fortnight later.
“If we finish second, we would obviously have a little bit of time to try and take the players away, refresh them and prepare ourselves for the first leg of the second game,” said Stubbs. “We’ve provisionally looked at something. If we finish in second, I would like to do something with the lads.
“Whether that’s here or somewhere else, I would look at that because it’s a chance to give the players a little bit of down time, considering what they’ve been through. There is a possibility of getting away for some sun.
“Whether we can do it is another thing. It’s a May Bank Holiday in Scotland, so to get flights is not easy. That’s not to say we’re going to do it but we’ve definitely discussed it. The players are aware of it. But obviously if Rangers win their last two games, it’s irrelevant. If we don’t finish second, it will become a normal week. But we’ve got two games to take care of – and we’ll see what happens come two o’clock next Saturday.”
The second leg of the play-off final takes place on the final day of May, and with a late-June return to work the norm for Scottish clubs, a short summer break is guaranteed for the protagonists.
“Getting to the play-off final would have a knock-on effect on pre-season,” said Stubbs. “But it would be very welcome. If we go out in the first play-off games, if we go out in the second, if we get to the final, all our plans are in place for pre-season. We’re looking at 25 days off, that’s one of the plans, the other is 33. It’s not ideal but I can think of worse things.”
Stubbs is adamant that the uncertainty over which division Hibs will play in next season will not impact on their ability to retain key men. The head coach says the club have made good progress behind the scenes and is unperturbed that regular starters like Mark Oxley, Liam Fontaine, Scott Robertson, Lewis Stevenson, Dylan McGeouch and Fraser Fyvie are all due to run out of contract at the end of the season. “We’re getting close to starting to speak to players,” said Stubbs. “We would have liked to do it earlier but what you’re finding here is not uncommon. A lot of clubs around us, their decisions won’t be getting made until after the last ball is kicked. We’re ahead of that. We don’t need to know what division we’ll be in next season [to sort out contracts].”
Stubbs believes that any of the three Championship clubs in the play-offs – Hibs, Rangers and, almost certainly, Queen of the South – will be equipped to flourish in the Premiership.
“I think all the three teams going for promotion would comfortably hold their own in the top flight. I know it sounds strange, but if anything it would suit them better [playing in the Premiership]. Going up would make any of the teams stronger – they’d be more of a force in that division. That’s why I think Hearts will do well next season.
“It’s hard to say whether the Premiership team or the Championship team would have the advantage in the final.”
While much of the talk has been about whether Hibs or Rangers will be in the play-off final, Stubbs insists Queen of the South, who have lost only two of their eight games against those two big city clubs this season, are genuine contenders. “James Fowler has done a great job there,” said Stubbs. “To keep that momentum going – he deserves a lot of credit.
“A lot of people have spoken about ourselves and Rangers because of the size of the clubs. It’s not disrespectful. But if Queens manage to capture that last place [in the play-offs], they will be worthy of that place. You only have to look at ourselves and Rangers – we have both had difficult games against them.”