Sean Mackie explains why Hibs can benefit from all the pressure being on Rangers
Hibs’ Sean Mackie believes the wild scenes of euphoria which greeted Connor Goldson’s injury-time winner at Rugby Park merely highlights the pressure bearing down on Rangers to prevent arch rivals Celtic clocking up a ninth successive Premiership title.
With the champions having kicked off the new season with a 7-0 hammering of St Johnstone 24 hours earlier, it looked as Steven Gerrard’s side were going to find themselves immediately trailing until Goldson powered home that header.
And while Hibs themselves had admitted to a sense of relief after Scott Allan’s late strike against St Mirren got the Easter Road club’s season up and running, it rather paled in comparison to the feelings on display in Kilmarnock.
The fact Rangers know they can’t afford any slip-ups if they are to finally end Celtic’s dominance won’t, insisted Mackie, be lost on Paul Heckingbottom’s players, who are aware that rather than face a St Mirren side intent on playing a game of frustration, they’ll be up against a team which will launch an all-out assault from the first whistle.
Backed by a 50,000 crowd roaring them on, Ibrox will be as hostile an environment as can be imagined. Mackie, however, argued that he and his team-mates are as well equipped as any other side to cope, pointing to Hibs’ recent record against Sunday’s opponents, just four defeats in their last 13 clashes.
“Every time we’ve played Rangers it’s been close,” said the 20-year-old. “We’ve won by the odd goal, been beaten by the same margin and there’s been a few draws, so hopefully that continues.
“Why should it be that way? I think it’s just a belief among the boys that we can go and get a result in every game we play. Whether it’s Old Firm games or Edinburgh derbies, we go out thinking we can win the match.
“It’s their first home game of the season and there’s massive pressure on them with Celtic going for nine in a row and trying to stop them doing it – but it’s how we perform, not them.”
Mackie’s own first experience of Ibrox came barely eight months ago, at a time when he was still very much an unknown to most Hibs supporters, but in the midst of a few weeks at the end of last year which he’ll always remember.
Ten days prior to travelling to Govan, he’d stepped off the bench to supply the cross for Flo Kamberi to clinch a 2-0 win over Celtic at Easter Road and then he did exactly the same against Rangers, replacing Lewis Stevenson at half-time and then firing in a cross which Darren McGregor nodded home to earn Hibs a point.
In between those games he made his first start against Livingston before ending the year by playing in his first Edinburgh derby.
“It certainly was a good time for me,” said the young defender. “It was great to get a run in the team, but then to play a part in Flo’s goal against Celtic and follow that up by putting in that cross for big Daz to score was brilliant.”
At that time Mackie was still very much regarded as part of Hibs’ Under-20s squad, although he was training regularly with the first team.
Now, though, along with Fraser Murray, he has his own place in the first-team dressing room, his peg situated between those of club skipper David Gray and Swiss striker Kamberi.
He said: “I did feel a wee bit like an outsider because I’d be training or playing with the first team, but having to go into the Under-20s changing room. I felt a wee bit in between, still having to do my jobs like pumping up the balls and cleaning Mark Milligan and Miquel Nelom’s boots.
“I thought when I first changed dressing rooms I might feel a bit apprehensive, but having been training with the boys, everything was absolutely fine.”
And, in fact, some of Mackie’s more experienced team-mates might ask for a little advice ahead of Sunday’s match, the likes of Christian Doidge, Joe Newell, Josh Vela and Adam Jackson all about to have their first taste of the Ibrox cauldron.
“I wouldn’t call me a veteran of these sort of games, far from it,” he laughed. “But I have been lucky to have had those experiences so early in my career.
“I’d imagine coming up here and playing Celtic, Rangers and the derbies would have been a bit of the attraction for the new guys but until you play in them, you don’t know what to expect. A packed Ibrox is a very intimidating place as you walk out and hear the noise of the fans.
“On the pitch it can be difficult to hear each other but, to be honest, you block it out and concentrate on your job. You actually hear it more if you are sitting in the dug-out.”