Hibs players have ‘bottle’ for play-offs

Liam Fontaine, left, Liam Craig, Scott Allan and Scott Robertson show their appreciation
Liam Fontaine, left, Liam Craig, Scott Allan and Scott Robertson show their appreciation
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Alan Stubbs hardly had time to draw breath after watching his side claim second place in the Championship, the Hibs head coach dashing from Falkirk to Motherwell as he began to lay his plans for the play-offs.

At Fir Park he saw two possible opponents – although it’s looking increasingly as if it will be Motherwell rather than Ross County who find their Premiership status under threat – battle out a 1-1 draw.

Before then, of course, Hibs will have to negotiate a two-legged affair against either Rangers or Queen of the South, but with 16 days before the first of those encounters, it underlines Stubbs’ determination to use that time not only to ensure his own players are ready but that a full dossier on who they will be playing is in place.

The homework on Rangers and Queens, you’d imagine, will be pretty much done, Hibs having faced the Ibrox club five times and the Dumfries outfit on four occasions already this season, but Stubbs wasn’t going to waste an opportunity to brush up on sides with which he’s perhaps a little less familiar. He said: “We have time to prepare the team for the winners of the Queens and Rangers tie. We are going to use it to the best of our advantage and prepare the players for the winners of that game.”

In that regard, Hibs are in pretty good shape, the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Falkirk, while not forgotten, has been put to one side with three successive victories and ten goals scored as the Easter Road club held their nerve to see off the challenge of Rangers for that second place which means two fewer play-off games to play.

The long wait before Hibs travel to either Palmerston Park or Govan on May 20 will also give those who were involved in that play-off horror against Hamilton this time last year plenty of time to reflect on that experience as midfielder Scott Robertson admitted.

He said: “I think some people might use that as motivation, but I just want to succeed with Hibs. That would be good enough for me. Of course last year was a major low point, losing to Hamilton, but I would like to think we can end the season on a major positive.

“I think it taught us how to handle the play-off situation. The way it was last year, Hamilton had it all to gain and we had it all to lose. The pressure was on us, but after the first result everyone thought we were going to stay up. It didn’t work out like that, it showed you that you never know what football is going to throw at you.”

That late capitulation to Accies, as did the recent Hampden defeat by Falkirk, raised questions over whether Robertson and his team-mates had the “bottle” for the big occasion, many expecting them to stumble yet again at the final hurdle as they faced the Bairns having failed to beat Peter Houston’s men on their four previous attempts this season.

Stubbs, though, insisted such claims had merely made his players all the more determined to make their critics eat their words.

“Sometimes I am surprised when people can question someone’s bottle,” he said. “It was not a question when we had lost just once in 27 games, but suddenly when we have lost one or two people question it. I think it’s good sometimes because it just makes players more determined.

“When you work with a group as good as they are day in and day out, I know exactly what the characters are and I know they are ready for what lies ahead. They have plenty of bottle, they are young, very intelligent and very good footballers.”

Robertson agreed that mental toughness will be called upon during the play-offs, saying: “We are going to need to have a bit of steel about us because whoever we face in the semi final is going to be eager to get to the final. And if we get to the final, it will be even more difficult.

“I feel we’ve shown in certain games this season that we’ve got the steel and the grit to do it. When we’ve been required to do it we’ve done it.”

The midfielder also insisted that results rather than performances were what was required at this stage of the season but, not only have Stubbs’ players produced the necessary wins, they have done so with a bit of style as they finally laid that Falkirk bogey to rest.

Stubbs couldn’t have asked for a better start, Martin Boyle nicking the ball off Craig Sibbald before side-stepping Will Vaulks and playing a one-two with Scott Allan and then drilling a low shot across Bairns goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald and into the far corner of the net – an exact replica of his goal against Alloa seven days earlier.

Hibs didn’t have it all their own way, though, a string of crosses – seen as their Achilles heel by Houston – causing a few problems in the swirling wind with Mark Oxley happy to see Tom Taiwo’s shot take a slight deflection before Jason Cummings settled the nerves of the 3493 travelling fans who were aware Rangers were two-up at Tynecastle with his 20th goal of the season.

And Dominique Malonga wrapped it up as the most laid-back man at Easter Road took Cummings’ pass and calmly slotted it beyond MacDonald.

Stubbs, however, insisted he had no cause for concern either before or during the match.

He said: “When you have good players it gives you that bit of confidence. Most importantly, I trust them to the hilt. I trust them to get on the ball, I trust them to take the ball in difficult positions and you only get that trust when you know you have good footballers.

“If you don’t have that you do become a bit nervous. But they have been great all season. I didn’t feel nervous at all, I was excited before the game and I said that to the players, it was part of my talk. I was really excited for them.”

And Robertson insisted Stubbs’ confidence was shared by his players.

“We had heard all the talk about Falkirk being our bogey side – and all that nonsense – but we knew what we had to do,” he said. “ We had our fate in our own hands and we got over the line.

“I think we can have great confidence for what lies ahead. We all feel it’s an exciting time right now.”