Dundee United and Falkirk both possess recent experience of wiping out a seemingly commanding Hibs advantage.
Earlier this season, the Arabs went from trailing the Easter Road team by seven points in mid-September to being two points ahead of them at the top of the Championship on Christmas Day. A little over a year ago, in February 2016, Hibs led Falkirk by five points with a game in hand and ended up being pipped to second place by Peter Houston’s side before losing to them in the play-offs.
With just two months of the campaign remaining, both United and Falkirk lurk menacingly on the heels of the stuttering title favourites, who have won none of their last four league games. Ray McKinnon’s team are, as they were in September, seven points behind Hibs but they have a chance to reduce that deficit to four points when they face the leaders at Tannadice on Friday. Next Wednesday, United play their game in hand away to St Mirren.
Falkirk, who have played a game more than Hibs, currently occupy second place and sit six points behind the leaders. They visit Easter Road later this month. Fourth-place Morton, who have a game in hand and two matches against Hibs to come, can’t be entirely discounted from a title race that is proving to be more closely contested than those at Easter Road would have hoped.
“My thoughts on the title race have probably changed over the last three weeks,” said John Rankin, a former player of Hibs, United and Falkirk. “The Scottish Cup game against Hearts was massive for Hibs and they seem to have got a bit sidetracked because of that and allowed the other teams back into it. They are six points clear and they have the strongest squad in the league, so they’re still clear favourites, but, with Falkirk coming into it as well, it’s certainly shaping up to be a good end to the season.”
Friday’s Tannadice showdown has a pivotal look to it. If Hibs lose, United could be within a point of them by close of play next Wednesday. If Hibs win, they will go ten points clear of the side widely viewed as their main challengers for the title. “Friday night is now a massive game,” said Rankin. “Hibs have a good lead but they’ll be looking to get the three points to give themselves a bit of breathing space. United have done well to hang in there. We’re into March and they are still there, so they’re certainly capable of maintaining their challenge. It just depends on whether they can claw back the difference there is at this moment in time.
“The game at Easter Road [in January] was huge in terms of giving Hibs the psychological advantage. But if United were to get three points `on Friday and get the gap down to four points with a game in hand, the psychological advantage would swing their way.”
While all eyes are on the big two in the division and their Friday-night showdown, Falkirk are emerging as a live threat. They were 12 points off the pace after losing to Hibs on Hogmanay but a run of 14 points from a possible 18 has hauled Houston’s side into the reckoning. Rankin, who joined Queen of the South in January, was with the Bairns for the first half of the season as they toiled for momentum and looked destined for a play-off place at best. However, having being part of a Queens side who lost at home to Falkirk on Saturday, he senses they are ready for another late-season surge like they one they produced last year to claim second place behind Rangers.
“I can’t put my finger on why Falkirk started slowly,” said Rankin. “I think the major aspect of it was that they were still trying to get over what happened last season. I know for a fact they fancied themselves to beat Kilmarnock in the play-off final, but that didn’t go to plan. When they came back in the summer, the boys were still hurting a little bit and thinking ‘we’ve got to start the big push all over again’. Their goal is to get promoted, and at the start of the season, that probably seemed like it was going to be a grind. But we’re now at a stage in the season where they can see the finishing line and they’re in a good position. They know this is the time of the season to kick on. At this stage of the season, it’s about results and Falkirk are getting them just now.
“Peter Houston’s been in this position before. He knows exactly how to get the best out of his players at this stage of the season and get his team into the play-offs. But they must have one eye on Hibs as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re looking at Friday night’s game wanting Dundee United to win, even though they would drop a place in the league. If United win, it gives Falkirk a chance of going and challenging for the title. They will fancy themselves.
“They’re desperate to get promoted this year, whether it’s through the play-offs or by winning the league. At this moment in time, they’ll probably be thinking realistically they are going for second, but I know with the mentality they’ve got there, they’ll be thinking they can come through as underdogs and get themselves promoted. When you look at the squads and the financial side of it, United are obviously stronger than Falkirk. But because they’ve been in this position before, and have good senior professionals, there’s an argument that Falkirk are better equipped than United to go up.”
Although Hibs have been stumbling in the league recently, Rankin believes that, with former Celtic player and manager Lennon at the helm, they will have the required mentality to deliver when it truly matters over the next couple of months. He does not envisage the type of collapse that would cost Alan Stubbs’ side so dearly around this time last year. “We’ve seen it all before with Neil Lennon,” said Rankin. “When his team need to step up to the plate, he usually ensures they do. He’s a great man-manager who knows how to get the best out of his players when it matters. His reaction after the Raith Rovers game spoke volumes about him. His players felt his wrath, but I think everyone else could see what he was doing by challenging them to prove a point, and he got his response against Hearts. That’s what good managers do.
“Neil’s been a winner all his career. He knows how to win titles. He sets standards and it’s all about winning for him. The first time I came up against Hibs this season, I noticed straight away that they were a completely different team to last season. Last year they dominated possession for long spells, and they do still do that at times, but they’re a bit more direct now, with the likes of Grant Holt and Brian Graham up front. These players make a big difference to them because they now have a Plan B.
“I think there’s a different mentality about Hibs this season. Most of the players have now tasted success after winning the Scottish Cup, so they know that feeling. They’ll be desperate to get back into the Premiership but now that they’re into the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup, they’ll be desperate to defend that as well. Trying to win two competitions like that will always be hard but the way things are at the moment, Hibs have got to be favourites to win the league.”
Having spent three and a half years with Hibs between January 2008 and May 2011, Rankin is aware of the need for the Easter Road club to ensure they avoid a fourth successive season in the second tier. “Neil was adamant in his interview after the cup game against Ayr that promotion is his main aim and the club needs that this year,” he said. “I don’t think they can suffer another year in the Championship. The supporters got right behind them this year simply because they won the Scottish Cup last year, but I think another season in the Championship would probably be too much for some of their supporters to take. They’ve been down there for three years and they’re just desperate to get back in the Premiership now.”