Jack Ross has become something of a regular at end-of-season parties, Saturday’s trip to Easter Road being the third year in a row the St Mirren manager has been an unwitting guest.
Hibs boss Neil Lennon, his players and their fans will only want to hear the final blast of referee Alan Muir’s whistle and get their hands on the Championship trophy, but Ross is hoping his Buddies will end the day with reason for their own celebrations.
The Paisley side will pitch up for the final game of the season still needing at least a point to claim eighth place in the table and so totally avoid the threat of relegation.
And while that outcome couldn’t be viewed as a success for the Saints, Ross admitted that given their chances of retaining their place in the second tier of Scottish football had been totally written off a few months ago, doing so can be looked upon as something of an achievement.
Incredibly, St Mirren had only four points to their name going into December, without a win in their opening 14 games and nine points adrift of Dunfermline, who then occupied second-bottom place.
Today the Buddies have 38 points to their name, two ahead of Raith in the relegation play-off spot and with a much healthier goal difference. Safety remains tantalisingly just out of reach, though, with John Hughes’ side at home to all-but-relegated Ayr United and knowing nothing but victory will haul them clear of danger.
Ross, however, insists he and his players will have no interest in what might be happening at Stark’s Park until the final whistle sounds and, even then, that result will be rendered irrelevant if his side do what is asked of them.
But having said that, Ross anticipates nothing less than a tough match even if, in essence, the final outcome will matter little to the Capital club, with the title having been secured three weeks ago.
He said: “I don’t think at the end of the day that makes it any more of less difficult. They’ve won the league but they’ll want to finish on a high in front of their own fans and their manager will demand as much, so I don’t think it’s any more difficult than at any other stage of the season.
“In the Championship there are no easy fixtures, that’s why it’s so difficult to get out of it. It’s very competitive, there’s not a lot between the sides.
“I’d have preferred a home game, but we’ll be looking forward to enjoying the environment.”
Saints will be bringing their own sizeable support, while such is the demand from home fans wanting to witness the end of Hibs’ three-year exile from the Premiership that the Capital club are opening the South Stand to them – which traditionally houses travelling supporters – with predictions of a gate of more than 19,000.
Ross said: “We asked for more tickets and our travelling support for recent matches has been very good, so it will be a great occasion for everyone.
“Hibs are going to have their party, they are well deserved winners of the Championship and they’ll get their reward in being presented with the trophy while, for us, the incentive is to finish out of the play-off spot.
“Hibs have waited long enough for that moment, but it’s actually the third season in succession I’ve experienced it. I was with Hearts when they were presented with the trophy two years ago and last time I took Alloa Athletic to Ibrox when Rangers picked it up.”
Ross could point to a 2-0 win over Hibs in Paisley a few weeks ago and a Scottish Challenge Cup victory at Easter Road earlier in the season as reason to suggest his players could well spoil the party but, he insisted, he’s been happy in general with his side’s performances for quite some time.
He said: “A lot of people were writing us off, but I always believed we would get out of it by whatever way we could.
“We were in a very difficult position, but we’ve done the first part in getting ourselves clear of the automatic relegation place and now it’s in our own hands to avoid the play-off spot.
“We won’t be patting ourselves on the back if we do finish eighth, but from where we were I think there would be a sense of achievement and hope moving forward.
“Going back 20 games, a good chunk of the season, our form has been good. There’s a different vibe around the place. The boys will have got a lot of confidence from beating Raith Rovers 5-0 last week, but we actually scored 20 goals in April, which is very good at any level of football.”
The catalyst, however, for a renaissance which was probably not anticipated anywhere outside Paisley was the January transfer window, in which Ross brought in the likes of former Hearts and Hibs player Adam Eckersley, former Saints midfielder Stephen McGinn – brother of Hibs’ John – goalkeeper Billy O’Brien on loan from Manchester City, with Dundee striker Rory Loy arriving on the same basis as did Aberdeen youngster Cameron Smith having been recommended by Dons boss Derek McInnes.
Cypriot defender Stelios Demetriou is another signing that has impressed during a trial spell, his two goals against Hibs as Lennon’s side suffered a surprise defeat helping vindicate Ross’ decision.
The former Hearts Under-20 coach said: “I knew Adam from having worked with him at Tynecastle, while I’d played with Stephen at St Mirren a number of years ago. There were others I took on the recommendation of people I knew I could trust. It all came together very well, the players all enjoy training together and they know they are part of a good squad.”
Saints actually made the final of the Challenge Cup, only to lose to Dundee United, while they enjoyed some success in the Scottish Cup including a win over Premiership Dundee. Ross said: “At a time when we were struggling the cups allowed us to win games which didn’t do us any harm. I’d probably have swapped them for some league points, but those games did give us the chance to build some momentum.”
Ross is looking forward to seeing the McGinn brothers face up to each other again, the older sibling Stephen having come out on top in their last encounter. He said: “John is definitely a talented player. I played with Stephen and worked with their other brother Paul, a great family and all with terrific attitude as players. The individual battle between Stephen and John isn’t going to settle Saturday’s game – but it will be part of it all.
“We’ll prepare for the game as we do any other. We’ll be respectful of the opposition – as I’ve said Hibs fully deserved to win the title and have good players throughout their team.
“But we believe we can cause them problems as we have already done. It has all the makings of a great game, a great occasion.”