It’s been 30 long months since Sam Stanton made his Hibs debut against Rangers, but today he admitted his return to Ibrox has come all too quickly.
The two clubs come face-to-face tonight, thrown together in the Petrofac Training Cup, hardly the setting either of them would have envisaged back on January 28, 2012.
That they do so is, of course, down to two entirely different sets of circumstances, although both self-inflicted, Hibs thanks to a calamitous end to last season and Rangers as they fight their way back to the top flight of Scottish football following the financial maelstrom which engulfed them.
Four more league encounters between the two will follow in the coming months as they, along with Hearts, battle it out for the Championship title and the automatic promotion place that goes with it, although there will be plenty of other clubs intent on having their say.
But, as far as Stanton is concerned, tonight isn’t just about winning, but making those who believe the Championship promotion fight lies between Rangers and the Jambos sit up and take notice.
While those two have had plenty of time to prepare for the coming season, Rangers marching up through Leagues Two and One and Hearts having known a year ago they were all but consigned to relegation with administration having brought a deduction of 15 points and a signing embargo, Hibs’ own demise was astonishing, defeat after defeat leading to the inevitable outcome.
Stanton penned a new four-year deal in April and was adamant that time would be spent in the Premiership, but his conviction was shattered only a few weeks later, although he insists he was right to remain positive.
He said: “I obviously wasn’t going to say I didn’t think we’d stay up. I would like to have thought we could have won that one game that would have saved us. We should have done that, we didn’t and we only have ourselves to blame.
“Everyone was bitterly disappointed about last season – as you would imagine it was very hard to take. It’s not a nice thing to have happened, but there’s a real determination among the boys – we want to make it right.”
Time to do so has been short, with new head coach Alan Stubbs having been left with a threadbare squad and only a few weeks to bring in new faces and mould them into a team capable of mounting a promotion challenge.
However, with Ibrox being conscripted for use during the Commonwealth Games – the stadium was used to host the rugby sevens tournament – it offered Stubbs a few extra days’ grace and, Stanton reckons, that time has been put to good use.
He said: “It’s been good for us. It’s given us more time to build the team, a couple of extra games to get fitter and sharper, a chance for the new boys to settle in and for us to get to know how each other plays.
“There’s been a lot of work for the gaffer to get sorted out in a very short space of time, but it’s all been very good and positive since he came in and we are looking forward to it.
“Rangers are the obvious favourites for the league, but as a group of players we know what we can do and we know we can do well.
“Tonight no-one will probably expect us to win. Rangers have good experienced players and have brought in the likes of Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd, but we are thinking about us and not them. The manager has told us to concentrate on ourselves, to believe in the ability we have.
“We’ve been playing good football pre-season. The ‘route one’ approach has gone, we’re keeping the ball on the deck and that will suit the likes of Alex Harris, Danny Handling and myself because that’s the way we have been taught since we came to the club at the age of 12.
“Scott Allan, Farid El Alagui, David Gray and Mark Oxley have all come in, so while we don’t have as big a squad as last season, I think it is a strong squad, full of good players and one which should excite the fans.”
Given that Hibs will travel to Ibrox twice on league business, would Stanton swap a win tonight for three points further down the line? “No,” is the emphatic reply, amplifying the winning mentality of his manager, “Every game has to be a priority.
“We want to do well in every competition we are in and to win as many games as possible, Winning gets you into a good rhythm to take into your next match. There’s been no talk at all of would we rather have three points from Ibrox or a win in the cup tonight. What we want is to win tonight and then go and get three points from the first league game against Livingston on Saturday.”
And Stanton is obviously hoping for more action than the two or three minutes he enjoyed on his previous visit to Ibrox. He said: “I remember Pat Fenlon telling me to go on and enjoy myself, which was kind of difficult since we were 3-0 down at the time and a man short [James McPake having been sent off].
“Even so, it was a brilliant experience for me, the build-up to the game, the atmosphere. I was only 17 at the time and it seems so much longer ago than two-and-a-half years.
“I don’t think back then anyone would have thought Hibs, Rangers and Hearts would all be in the Championship. You want to play at as high a level as possible, but we are where we are and we have to make the most of it.”