The first signs that Hibs were set for improvement under Alan Stubbs came in their very first competitive match of last season: a Petrofac Cup first-round tie against Rangers.
he Easter Road side, still emerging from the trauma of relegation just two months earlier, played their Championship rivals off the pitch for long periods at Ibrox in early August before ultimately succumbing to a 2-1 defeat in extra-time after losing Danny Handling to a harsh red card.
The two sides meet again today at the same stage of the competition – this time at Easter Road – and Paul Hanlon believes it is a perfect opportunity for his team to highlight the winning mentality that was generated by Stubbs as last season progressed. “We were brilliant that night at Ibrox,” the defender recalled. “Danny got sent off and that kind of changed the game a bit, but it gave us belief to kick on for the season and we had a few good performances against them in the league campaign.
“Twelve months ago was tough. We came back for pre-season with not many players at all. There was no manager, nothing, so the change around has been amazing. The difference in training and the professionalism is unbelievable now so it’s just about seeing the benefits on the pitch really.
“The manager and the staff have brought a real belief, telling you how good you are, what you need to improve obviously. They tell us every game that we’re good enough to win. ‘We’re going to win, we’re going to win’ – it’s always drilled into us. It gives you a good belief and confidence that you’re a good player and a good team.
“We have more belief going into games against Rangers now. No-one is going into this game fearing Rangers. It’s all about ourselves and concentrating on trying to get through to the next round of this cup.”
While last summer it was Hibs who were subject to a major squad overhaul, this time it has been Rangers. Hanlon admits today’s opponents will be something of an unknown quantity, but is hopeful that his team can benefit from having the more settled look. The Easter Road, incidentally, are unlikely to have any new faces in the starting line-up, with Dan Carmichael and James Keatings feeling their way back from injury, Marvin Bartley short of match fitness, and Toni Reguero set to start on the bench.
“The tables are turned a bit between the two teams from last summer,” he said. “They’ve made a few changes, as we expected with so many players leaving. They’re a bit unknown, but the manager went and watched them the other night [against Burnley].
“We made our own additions that will need time to settle in, but we’re glad our business was done so early and we got our squad together. Hopefully that’s a benefit for us in the long term. A few improvements have been brought into the squad that will make us stronger.
“Last season we performed well, but not well enough so we need to take it to the next level. It will be a good indication of where we are at.”
Rangers manager Mark Warburton has hinted that his team are merely viewing today’s game as an extension of their pre-season preparations, but Hanlon insists there will be no such approach from Hibs. “If that’s the way they think is best to plan their season then that’s fair enough,” he said. “If I’m playing against Glasgow Rangers, I’m going to give it my all.
“The original plan was maybe to make it more of a pre-season game but as soon as you draw Rangers it’s a big game and a big one for the fans.”
New Rangers recruit Martyn Waghorn scored a double against Hibs for former club Wigan in Spain a fortnight ago and this week referred to the Easter Road side as “pretty basic” and “nothing great” on the evidence of that friendly. Hanlon was in no mood to get involved in a war of words, however. “He maybe wasn’t watching the first half of the game,” said the defender. “We ran them a bit ragged in the first half. That’s not something I worry about though. It’s Hibs against Rangers, not Wigan.”