This season Rangers Report will run a series of Match Previews entitled the Big Three prior to each match. Rather then write in generalities about teams I rarely see – we will ask people who follow the opponent on a daily basis to provide some insight on their club. Their task is to identify a Big Three — three aspects of their club that Rangers supporters should keep an eye on.
Following on from two consecutive Scottish Cup finals in 2012 and 2013, Hibs endured a lengthy season in 2013/14 with the tone set early on via the death of club legend Lawrie Reilly and a thrashing at the hands of Malmo in the Europa League. There were managerial changes, an absence of exciting moments and an early exit from the Scottish Cup – all of which threatened to make this a forgettable season.
Unfortunately for Hibs it was anything but, a major slump in form saw the side slip down the table and into 11th place. Holding a 2-1 advantage over Hamilton Academical going into the final 80 seconds, Anthony Andreu struck to level the tie, with the Accies relegating Hibs on penalties.
The daunting task of facing Rangers at Ibrox in the Petrofac Training Cup is the first meaningful game since the ill-fated SPFL Premiership play-off, and is the first competitive game for Hibernian’s Head Coach Alan Stubbs. In preseason the side have already won 4-0 on two occasions, drawn 0-0 twice, won 2-0 and lost 1-0 to Dundee United, meaning that Stubbs’ charges will go into this game with some degree of confidence.
Hibernian: The Big Three
1. Alan Stubbs
Alan Stubbs joined Hibs after a successful time as a youth team coach at Everton. Players like Jose Baxter, Luke Garbutt and Ross Barkley all came through the Everton Youth Academy during the Stubbs’ tenure at the helm. Slowly but surely the former Bolton, Celtic, Sunderland, Everton and Derby County player is making the changes required at Hibs. His footballing philosophy is to win matches, citing that he does not want to speak about playing a certain style and not winning football matches, but by and large the football has seemed attractive to watch.
It is a far cry from the football last season when the team had a tendency to go long at all costs, this time the team seem content to keep control of the ball and look for an opening, rather than deciding that the best decision is a long, hopeful ball with nobody on the end of it. His demeanour is also positive and his work with young players will stand him in good stead as he takes over a side which is feted for developing youth, including the likes of Steven Whittaker, Steven Fletcher and Kenny Miller, and especially as he will work with a smaller squad which will need to be subsidised by academy players.
With his experiences of playing in the rambunctious Old Firm derbies, Stubbs will know all about the environment of Ibrox and the side should be well prepared for tie on Tuesday under his tutelage.
As already mentioned, Hibs have a fine history of producing young talent, and a bulk of the squad will be made up with younger players. Striker Jason Cummings, winger Alex Harris, midfielder Sam Stanton, defender Jordon Forster and forward Danny Handling, are all young players that have featured in the team since 2012 and 2013 that all got substantial game time during preseason.
Harris and Handling have a lot of game time under their belts, but are 19 and 20, and need to be on top form over the coming season to remain in the plans of Alan Stubbs. Fortunately for both they have done enough and have looked sharper and more confident than they did last season and the game at Ibrox will be a test that they will relish. Forster is only 20, but again has had a full seasons worth of games, and the powerful defender will prove a handful for the likes of Bilel Mohsni at set-pieces, where he contributed four goals last season, as well as proving to be a major obstacle for Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd. Stanton won plaudits for his performances in a struggling Hibs team, becoming one of the focal points of the team in the process, and he will be hoping to continue his development.
Cummings enters into his second year as a professional player in what has been a remarkable year for the forward. Going from a gardener to a first-team footballer in the space of a few months, Cummings enjoyed many highs at Hibs as well as the devastating low of seeing his penalty saved which relegated his side. But he cannot be faulted for the relegation, his abundance of energy and enthusiasm saw him finish as the SPFL U20 top scorer and saw him capped at Scotland under-19 level. These are players that will prove to be important over the season, starting off with the tie at Ibrox.
The atmosphere at Ibrox can be great, it can be poor and it can be intimidating. The last of those three is what the Hibs players will have to deal with. It will be the first meeting between the sides since 2012 and the Edinburgh side were very vocal in their disapproval of Rangers being allowed instant access back into the top-flight, consigning the Govan club to the lowest tier of the football league pyramid in Scotland.
The sides have clashed at various youth levels since then, but the first-teams have not locked horns since a 4-0 win at Ibrox for Rangers in January of 2012. It will be interesting to see the reception that Hibernian get as they walk out onto the park. The atmosphere can also go against Rangers. If the side are failing to perform then the fans will become edgy and it can impact negatively on the players.