Gary Locke admits Raith Rovers will be intent on using a large Hibs support to their advantage as the former Hearts manager prepares to run the gauntlet at Easter Road on Saturday.
A bumper crowd is anticipated for the Christmas Eve showdown, with the presence of diehard Jambo Locke and Tynecastle legend Rudi Skacel in the Rovers ranks sure to add spice to the occasion.
The Raith boss is relishing his first visit to Easter Road since leading Hearts to an Edinburgh derby victory there in April 2014, and he believes the key to ensuring another successful outing in Leith lies in frustrating a Hibs support who have been feeling the tension since on-form Dundee United moved level on points with them at the top of the Championship earlier this month.
Locke, whose team have drawn all three of their matches against the top two this season, said: “We’ve done reasonably well in our games against Hibs and Dundee United but we’re well aware of how difficult it’s going to be at Easter Road. It’s a different proposition to playing them at Stark’s Park because they’ll have about 13,000 supporters behind them.
“It all depends how you start. If you go there and lose an early goal, it can become a difficult afternoon. But I’m well aware that if we start well and make it hard for them, the fans can get on their back. We’ve got to go there looking to quieten the crowd by starting well. If we do that, we give ourselves a chance of winning the game.”
Locke knows that, as a man who has captained, coached and managed Hearts, he will be the focus of the home fans’ attention when he rocks up at Easter Road. However, he is comfortable being cast as the villain of the piece.
“It’s always nice to go back to the bigger and better stadiums in the country,” he said. “I always enjoy going to Easter Road and I’m sure I’ll get a nice, friendly welcome! I enjoy going there and getting all the stick. Nine times out of ten, it’s good natured, so, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand, I don’t mind it at all. It’s a fantastic stadium and a great place to take your team to play. They’re the best team in the league at the minute and they’ve added a fantastic player in Kris Commons, so it’ll be a real test for us.”
Locke believes the emergency loan signing of Commons from Celtic last week underlines how important it is for Hibs to ensure they win promotion at the third attempt.
“The management team they appointed at the start of the season and the calibre of players they’ve brought to the club shows they mean business,” said Locke. “They obviously feel they have to get back up this season and are signing the players they hope will put them in contention. There’s an element of that with Dundee United as well. We’ve shown we can match them both on our day but in terms of the budgets, the fanbases and the size of the clubs, they’re the two clear favourites. They’re both able to spend money on players that far outweighs anything we can afford. I’ve been there at Hearts – when you’re at a big club, there’s always an expectation that you’ve got to do well, and that’s why Hibs and United are having to go out and sign big players.”
Since their goalless draw at home to Hibs in mid-October, Raith have been on a run in which they have lost only one game in eight. However, they have slipped from third to fifth after drawing five of those matches, and Locke is eager to see a return to the victory trail.
“I’ve been delighted with our last two performances because we’ve been back to how we were playing at the start of the season,” he said. “We’ve only had one defeat in eight, so we’re showing a wee bit of consistency in terms of not losing, but at the same time we’ve not won as many games as we feel we should have done. If we keep playing the way we’re playing and keep creating the amount of chances we have been recently, then I’m more than confident that we’ll start turning the draws into wins and hopefully shoot back up the table.”