Alan Stubbs today insisted he has no fears that Capital neighbours Hearts will “down tools” after sealing the Championship title with six matches to play.
Robbie Neilson’s side still have to face Rangers – Hibs’ rivals for second place in the table – twice in that period, the first of those two games taking place at Ibrox on Sunday and the other on the final day of the season in Gorgie with the outcome of both having an obvious impact on the Easter Road club’s ambitions.
But, having lost just one game in 30 so far, Stubbs does not expect the Tynecastle outfit to ease up, with Neilson having set his players a target of 99 points and 100 goals from their remarkable season.
Revealing he’d phoned Neilson to congratulate him the day after his side’s defeat by Rangers left Hearts uncatchable, the Hibs head coach said: “They’ve been brilliant. They’ve won the league in a canter in the end and they do want to finish it with aplomb and finish on 99 points if they can.
“They’re professional football players and once they cross that white line it’s very difficult to down tools. They’re on the crest of a wave and their confidence is sky high. I don’t see that being any different, as players you want to go to big grounds and get big results.”
Stubbs knows Hibs can apply a little bit of extra pressure on Stuart McCall’s side ahead of Sunday’s showdown with Hearts by beating Queen of the South tomorrow, the former Celtic and Everton defender adamant the “wheels haven’t come off” after two successive defeats left the Edinburgh outfit’s once six-point advantage reduced to goal difference.
He said: “I think if we win it gives a different outlook to that game again. Whether it puts more focus on that game or doubt in their mind, I don’t know. If we win and Rangers get beat, I’m sure everybody will be saying we’re favourites for second again. It could change from week to week. There are a lot of pivotal games at this end of the season.”
Despite those losses to Rangers and Raith Rovers, Stubbs remains optimistic, his feeling reinforced by Hibs’ display in defeat at Stark’s Park. He said: “I’m actually very happy with the way the team are playing because I know they’re in the right place and ready for the end of the season.
“I have no qualms whatsoever, the wheels haven’t fallen off like some people are writing.”
Admitting that now the prize of first place is gone, he wants second, Stubbs went on: “From where we were at the start of the season our main target was to finish in the play-offs. Everyone thought Rangers would win the league, Hearts would finish second and we’d be third.
“The top two is not what everybody said, it could be different come May 2. We want to finish in second. Some people might see that as being arrogant but I think it’s being honest. What’s the point of not being honest?
“I want to finish in second, I wanted to finish first but does that make me over-confident. No, it doesn’t, it’s the reality. We’re ambitious as a group.”