Seven weeks ago, Hibernian beat Rangers 4-0 at Easter Road in a Scottish Championship match as one-sided as they come. It was Hibs’ biggest home victory over Rangers since 1912 and the second time they had beaten Rangers in the league this season. The previous win was 3-1 in Glasgow.
Yet when they go back to Ibrox tonight, it will again be as the support act, the 2-1 outsiders – at least until kick-off.
Rangers remain the loudest noise in Scottish football owing to their boardroom saga, but with Celtic to face Internazionale in the Europa League next Thursday and Aberdeen and Hearts resurgent, there are diversions. Hibs, led by Alan Stubbs in his first managerial post, are another. “There is plenty to be excited about,” Stubbs said, “I can see progress.”
Given where Hibs have been of late, he would need to. Partly obscured by Rangers’ promotion from Scottish League One last season – and Hearts’ 15-point deduction, administration and subsequent relegation from the top flight – was the fact that Hibs were also relegated.
Terry Butcher was manager as Hibs lost a play-off to Hamilton and a season that had begun with a 9-0 aggregate defeat by Malmo in the Europa League collapsed in embarrassment. It meant Scotland’s capital had no club in Scotland’s top division, lending credibility to the claim that Edinburgh is the most underexploited football city in Britain, perhaps Europe.
Hibs have not won the Scottish title since 1952, or been runners-up since 1975, but it is a substantial club with obvious potential, its own training ground and an impressive stadium. Yet when Stubbs arrived at the end of June he encountered internal chaos and external revolt. Of the 25-man squad who had just been relegated, only 11 had been retained and four of them soon departed. The new season was five weeks away.
Against the background of struggle over club ownership, Stubbs could have walked. The former Bolton, Everton and Celtic defender, 43, had acquired coaching experience with Everton’s youths and reserves – and applied for the top job at Goodison Park after David Moyes left – but this was coalface education.
“I had to come out and say we were ready,” Stubbs told Hibs’ recent general meeting. “But we were not ready. We were not fit enough, not where I wanted them to be. I make no bones about this, the players should not have been in the condition they were. It was going to take time.”
Stubbs’ first game, like his next, was against Rangers at Ibrox, a 2-1 defeat in the Petrofac Cup. There has been just a single reverse since September, though, and if there have been too many draws to enable Hibs to challenge Hearts at the top of Scotland’s second tier, there is a race for second place and the slight advantage that brings in the play-offs. Rangers have three games in hand, which is why tonight’s game is so significant.
Hibs midfielder Scott Allan dominated the last meeting and Stubbs says it was “a statement of intent” when the club rejected Dundee United’s deadline day bid for Allan. At the same time, Stubbs brought midfielder Fraser Fyvie back to Scotland from a disappointing time at Wigan. Those two actions were described by Stubbs as “a defining day for the club”.
Stubbs’ experience of testicular cancer means that he has perspective, and he spoke on Wednesday of the bigger Scottish picture in terms of the Premier League “monster” south of the border and its new TV deal.
While a third consecutive Hibs victory over Rangers might not be categorised as another defining day, it could lead to one in May that takes them closer to some sense of fulfilment.