Liam Henderson has never played in an Old Firm match, but the on-loan Celtic midfielder reckons the Championship showdown between Rangers and Hibs is the closest he’s come to such an occasion – for the time being.
A crowd just five short of 50,000, all but 900 of them fans of the Glasgow club, witnessed an epic tussle as the two sides fought for the right to go into 2016 top of the table and, naturally, Henderson found himself singled out for special attention given his ties to the other side of the city.
“I was getting a lot of stick,” revealed the 19-year-old, “but I enjoyed it. It was a good experience for me playing in front of such a big crowd.”
What Henderson and his team-mates didn’t enjoy, of course, was a 4-2 defeat, their first since losing by a single goal in Govan at the end of August. However, they reacted to that setback by embarking on an unbeaten run of 17 matches which had not only hauled them level with the title favourites but into next month’s League Cup semi-final against St Johnstone at Tynecastle.
Henderson insisted the disappointment of having that streak come to an end along with hopes of taking a three-point lead having once been in peril of falling 11 points behind Rangers, would be quickly put to one side as all attention was paid to Saturday’s visit from Raith Rovers, the first of a double-header between the clubs with Hibs due to cross the Forth to face the Fifers at Stark’s Park seven days later as they get their Scottish Cup campaign underway.
Admitting he couldn’t immediately put a finger on what went wrong at Ibrox, Henderson was adamant not too much time would be wasted in raking over the coals.
He said: “It was a sore one, but it’s finished now. We’ll sit down and try to pin-point what went wrong. I couldn’t put a finger on it, I thought we played well, played some nice football. It was a really open game and I’m sure the neutrals thoroughly enjoyed it.”
While Hibs had gone into the Ibrox match brimming with confidence in contrast to a Rangers side buffeted by criticism having taken just eight points from their previous six games, former Easter Road striker Kenny Miller had expressed the view that defeat for his old club might just provoke some self-doubt among Stubbs’ players.
Henderson, though, was having none of it, saying: “We won’t dilly-dally on it, we’ll analyse it, and each of us will see where we can do better and try to improve for the next game.
“We are a strong unit and we’ll bounce back. These things happen in football. You’ll always lose a game, but I believe you learn more from losing than you do from winning. As I said, it was a good experience for me, but losing a game we’d hoped to have won did put a dampener on the day.”
The build-up to Monday’s match had, of course, been overshadowed by some verbal sparring between Stubbs and Warburton, the Rangers boss accusing his Easter Road counterpart of indulging in “amateur psychology level one”, although afterwards both were magnanimous towards each other.
Henderson, however, claimed those spats had simply sailed over the heads of him and his team-mates, suggesting it was the media who were guilty of over-hyping affairs before saying: “We were going about our business quietly, concentrating on ourselves and our game plan.”
So oblivious to events outwith his own dressing-room was Henderson, he confessed to being totally unaware that Falkirk were now in a position to overhaul Hibs on goal difference to take second place with victory over Livingston last night and also to the fact that Stubbs’ side had approached Ibrox boasting the best defensive record in Britain only to concede four in one game, something the Capital club hadn’t done previously in a league game since the head coach took charge 19 months ago.
Henderson conceded all four goals lost were “preventable”, but went on: “We were all bitterly disappointed. It was an open game, that’s something the fans want to see, an expansive game of football.”
While Stubbs shared his players’ disappointment, the former Celtic and Everton defender insisted he’d have “bitten your hand off” if he’d been offered the situation his side now find themselves in before the season had got under way, the campaign now exactly halfway through and with Rangers still to pay a second visit to Edinburgh where they lost at the beginning of last month.
And that wasn’t lost on Henderson, who said: “We will continue to take it one game at a time, that’s all we can do. We’ll continue to work hard in training every day and to give it our all in matches to please the fans and the manager.
“After we were beaten at Ibrox last time we set off on that long unbeaten run and if we can do that again then we won’t be too far away at all come the end of the season.
“There’s no point dwelling on what’s gone. Our focus is now entirely on Raith Rovers this Saturday. It’s a bit like falling off a bike. You simply get up and jump straight back on it. Hopefully our fans will turn out, get right behind us and see us bounce back with a win.”