For Hibs and Dundee United, the stakes couldn’t be much higher tonight.
Victory for the Easter Road club would see them open up a ten-point gap on the side seen as their biggest rivals for the Championship title, a lead which, many claim, would more or less be enough to see them home.
Defeat, however, and Ray McKinnon’s players would close to within four points and with a game in hand – an outcome which would undoubtedly suggest everything going down to the wire.
Hibs, of course, could well have been out of sight by now, spurning chance after chance to put clear daylight between themselves, United, Falkirk and Morton, who very much retain an interest as the season heads into the final straight.
Four straight draws for the Capital club have allowed the others to remain in touch, Falkirk’s recent run of 14 points out of 18 nosing them ahead of United who, although unbeaten at Tannadice this season, have managed to win just one of their last seven league games.
Hibs boss Neil Lennon firmly believes his players’ defence of the Scottish Cup has been a major distraction, their ties in that competition interspersed with the more mundane business of league points.
But, with seven Championship matches before their semi-final with Aberdeen towards the end of next month, Lewis Stevenson admitted there’s no better time for Lennon’s players to underline their tag of title favourites.
“We need to go on a run,” he insisted. “We need to start winning games. It’s been four games since we won in the league and that’s not good enough if we are going to win the title.
“If we do win, we would go ten points clear but, if we don’t, it could be one point within a couple of weeks.
“But we’re trying not to look too much into things like that. We’re focusing on winning a game.”
Despite the significance of tonight’s encounter on Tayside, Stevenson insisted Hibs will be approaching it as they would any other match, saying: “You have to treat every game as big as you can “It’s three points at the end of the day and that’s all we can focus on. Just now, though, they are one of our nearest challengers.”
A stunning 3-0 win when United were ‘first foots’ at Easter Road a week after New Year appeared, at the time, to suggest Hibs were ready to run away with the Championship.
But, after two previous seasons in the second tier of Scottish football, Stevenson insisted nothing could ever be taken for granted.
The 29-year-old defender said: “We knew it was going to be hard. We’ve been in this kind of position before and we now how hard it gets.
“It seems like the teams at the bottom start getting better and the teams at the top probably start getting worse.
“But we can’t fall into that trap. It’s not just us who have been on a poor run recently – Dundee United and Morton have dropped a few points. It iss what it is – if we can get a win against United it’s obviously going to be massive but it’s not going to make or break our season.”
After Hearts and Rangers ran away with the title to return to the Premiership in the last two seasons, many had predicted Hibs would do likewise this time round, especially after a start which saw them win their first five league games.
However, it was made clear that wouldn’t be the case as they then endured a run of four games without a win before they picked up again only to be beaten by United on their last trip to Tayside, Martin Boyle’s missed penalty proving costly as Tony Andreu subsequently netted from the spot for the home side.
Since then, Hibs had proved to have been pretty consistent before being held to four successive draws, a run ended by a shock defeat by basement side St Mirren, a sequence of results which has given those chasing renewed hope.
Lennon’s players, though, have produced some of their best performances in the big games, United’s last visit to Easter Road and the Edinburgh derbies in the Scottish Cup against arch-rivals Hearts the most notable of them.
As enjoyable as those outings might have been, Stevenson insisted he and his team-mates need to find such displays on a more regular basis, agreeing that while they’ve lost only three league games this season, having nine draws against their name wasn’t particularly impressive.
Paradoxically, some might say a draw tonight wouldn’t be a bad result, another game ticked off with United kept their distance, but Stevenson said: “We’re going into the game looking to win.
“We’ve had too many draws, we’ve dropped a lot of points through them. These games have been tight so we have to find a way of turning them into wins.
“However, the so-called big games seem to get the best out of us. But if you are going to win a league, you have to win games week-in, week-out.
“Even if we don’t play well, we need to find a way to win games.
“That will be the case tonight – I don’t care how we win as long as we win.
“It would have been nice to run away with it, but we knew that was maybe not going to be the case.
“Anyone can beat anyone in this league and I’m sure there will be plenty of points dropped between now and the end of the season. Just hopefully not many by us.”
And Stevenson insisted the bitter memory of failing in the play-offs for a second season in succession will be the driving force in the coming weeks with promotion the over-riding priority even if there is still the hope of retaining the Scottish Cup.
He said: “The cup will take care of itself. The manager has said the league is the priority – and he is right.
“That has to be the focus. It’s the hardest thing to win over 36 games and I’d rather have the league than the cup. 100 per cent.
“You need to be a good team to be in the running for both and, so far, we’ve got a chance of winning both.
“We remember how we felt after the play-offs last season. It was hard to take and the only way to pick ourselves up was winning the cup.
“This season it feels even more important to win promotion.”