CRAIG PATERSON reckons Hibs need to draw first blood against Rangers on Sunday in a game he believes the Easter Road outfit must win to keep their Championship title hopes alive.
Alan Stubbs’ players go into the match ten points better off than they were at this stage last season yet trail the league leaders, who have made a turbo-charged start to the season by winning all 11 matches so far, by eight.
And, although the Ibrox club have steam-rollered the oppostion so far, recent victories have been hard-fought, their last three games – including the Petrofac Training Cup tie against Livingston – having all been won by a single goal.
The point, though, as Paterson made, is that Mark Warburton’s side have continued to win, the only blot on their copy book so far being a League Cup defeat at home by Premiership outfit St Johnstone. However, having seen Jason Holt’s goal at St Mirren ease Rangers to their latest triumph at the weekend, Paterson believes teams are now perhaps working out how best to counter them.
He said: “It was the pace of Michael O’Halloran that worked for St Johnstone and, on Sunday, St Mirren used the power of Steven Thompson, getting the ball in to him to win his headers and play off him. We’ve watched Rangers dominate teams by passing the ball quickly but Saints pushed up and, although Rangers had a couple of chances to put the game beyond them, I think Saints would have been pleased enough.
“They forced Wes Foderingham into a couple of decent saves and, other than Hibs, they became the only side to have kept Rangers down to a single goal in the league.”
As much has been made of Rangers’ outstanding statistics, Hibs themselves have quietly gone about building a run of ten games unbeaten, travelling to both Falkirk and Raith Rovers in the space of a few days to end those clubs’ unbeaten home records while, at the same time, installing themselves in second place.
And Paterson, who was at Falkirk as part of BBC Radio Scotland’s commentary team, admitted he has been impressed by Hibs’ new-found resilience, just seven goals conceded – one more than Sunday’s rivals, who boast the best defensive record in Britain.
The former Hibs and Rangers stopper said: “On their day, Hibs know they can play better – with a little more style – but they’ve been winning games they’d have drawn in the past and, in matches they might have lost, they’re taking a point. They have a belief they are going to get something from matches.
“The Falkirk game was very tough. They were asked to defend and proved they can protect their goalkeeper. Then they went to Raith, who’d won five out of five at home, rolling everybody over, and they’ve come away with another hard-fought victory.
“I’m sure Alan Stubbs would have been as delighted with those performances as he was with the 3-0 win over Alloa. Scoring goals has never been a problem for Hibs but last year they conceded more than they’d have liked.
“They’ve come on leaps and bounds, whether they play a back four or three centre halves. It must be a good confidence-booster knowing they are not going to concede and have to come back all the time.”
The only games in which Hibs have dropped points, against Dumbarton on the opening day, Rangers at Ibrox and St Mirren at home, they conceded the first goal, something Paterson, who also played for Kilmarnock and Motherwell, believes must be avoided on Sunday.
He said: “Hibs and Rangers got to know each other very well last season but, in every one of the seven games they played, the match was won by the team that scored first. Yes, Rangers came from behind in the Petrofac Cup tie at the beginning of the season but, if you look back over the last seven or eight years, you’ll only find a handful of times when the side losing the first goal has gone on to win.
“It’s an amazing statistic so it makes getting the first goal on Sunday all the more crucial.”
To that end, Paterson insisted Hibs must take their chances, pointing to how opportunities to score went abegging at Ibrox in August, leaving James Tavernier to beat goalkeeper Mark Oxley for the second time this season with a sumptuous free-kick.
Paterson said: “Hibs had six chances that day, didn’t take any of them and Rangers picked up the three points. Hibs are capable of creating openings but the big difference in a game like this is taking them. The pressure is on Hibs, they are the chasing team so they have to be clinical this time.
“Rangers have an eight-point advantage at the moment. A win would make it eleven and, with their great goal difference, that makes it almost like a 12-point lead, the equivalent of winning four games.
“A draw would obviously suit Rangers better than Hibs as they’d still have that big cushion and, while they’d still have to play each other another couple of times, Rangers haven’t shown any signs of weakness thus far.”
That said, Paterson feels that in Jason Cummings, scorer of ten goals already this season, Stubbs does possess a potential match-winner, the youngster having notched four against Rangers last season – and another in the Petrofac Training Cup in August.
“When Cummings first came into the team, he reminded me a bit of Ally McCoist,” said Paterson, “Like Ally, he has that unbelievable ability to be in the right place at the right time to sniff out an opportunity.
“Against Aberdeen, he was playing a team of quality, one which was not conceding at that time, and they found him a real handful while scoring against Hearts last season will do nothing but endear him to the Hibs fans.
“When he gets the ball in and around the box he isn’t looking to set people up and, although you do get strikers who tend to get their goals against the lower teams and don’t perform in the big games, Cummings certainly does.
“He can score from anywhere, tap-ins, 25-yarders, headers. Being a great goalscorer is good enough but I think we’ve seen Cummings add to his game this season and he’s getting better and better.”
Paterson is expecting a nervy affair at Easter Road.
He said: “I think given the importance of this game it will be tight, nervous and maybe decided by a little bit of magic in the final third. We’ve got the two strongest squads in the division and I think most people, because of the strength in depth of both, expect them to be the main challengers for the title.
“But the fact Rangers have got off to a flyer like Hearts last seaso,n Hibs are the team that probably need to be looking for three points.”