Leigh Griffiths and James McPake have tended to hog the spotlight at Easter Road, one for his goals and the other his no-nonsense defending.
And while there’s little doubt Griffiths, now with 12 goals to his name this season, and club captain McPake have played prominent roles, Ryan McGivern reckons the win over Dundee United which put Pat Fenlon’s side two points clear at the top of the SPL underlined the team effort which has underpinned Hibs’ remarkable revival this season.
McPake was ruled out with a back spasm on Sunday and it lent something of an air of vulnerability to the Capital outfit prior to kick-off, his absence, along with that of Tim Clancy, giving Hibs’ backline something of a makeshift look as Fenlon was forced to shuffle his pack.
While Alan Maybury retained his place at right back, the introduction of Lewis Stevenson on the opposite flank for his first start since mid-August saw McGivern and stand-in captain Paul Hanlon each take a step to the right to form a new central defensive partnership. Both playing slightly out of position, but other than a mix-up which gifted United a lifeline just two minutes after Eoin Doyle had added to Griffith’s stunning opener, McGivern felt, that with a touch or two of luck, he and his team-mates merited a win which maintained their unbeaten home record, their abysmal form at Easter Road last season the root of much of their troubles.
Today Northern Ireland defender McGivern revealed that while McPake had been a doubt for a couple of days beforehand, he and Hanlon only learned 24 hours prior to kick-off that they’d be taking the responsibility for blunting the aerial threat posed by United skipper Jon Daly and top scorer Johnny Russell.
Although Hanlon is, of course, well used to central defence, but on the left rather than the right of the pairing, on-loan Manchester City star McGivern disclosed he could only recall playing 45 minutes in that position in recent years.
He said: “From the outside people might have thought we were vulnerable at the back with our main defender and captain out, but I think it shows the strength in depth we have. Lewis, who is more a midfielder than left back, came in and did well, while Paul and myself had to shift across one, but sometimes in football circumstances dictate you have to adapt and do the best you can.
“I can only recall playing centre-back for 45 minutes in the recent past, although I did play there through youth teams and young age group sides. We’d worked on it Thursday and Friday but we didn’t know James wouldn’t be fit until Saturday, so I think we did quite well. We were disappointed not to have kept a clean sheet, but the main thing was getting the three points.”
As United travelled to the Capital, Fenlon had admitted Sunday’s lunchtime clash would be a good barometer as to how much progress his team had made since the opening day of the season when Peter Houston’s side inflicted a 3-0 defeat on them, the Irishman’s belief the Tayside club would find an entirely different proposition confronting them this time round totally vindicated.
While Houston moaned his players had barely shown up in the first half, Hibs set about their task with a verve and vigour which appeared to catch United unawares. They got their rewards when Griffiths claimed as good a goal as you will see all season, Paul Cairney’s clever reverse pass finding Doyle, who wasted no time in delivering an inviting cross to the back post where the on-loan Wolves hitman was waiting to volley home with his less favoured right foot.
If there was one disappointment during that opening period it was probably the fact Hibs didn’t add to that strike but they did so minutes after the start of the second half, Cairney again involved as he took Tom Taiwo’s pass to “nutmeg” United’s Keith Watson before cutting the ball back for Doyle to send into the roof of the net – his fifth goal of the season.
McGivern, who is due to play for Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifying match against Azerbaijan in Belfast tomorrow night, said: “They were two terrific goals, the way we passed the ball about and then the finishes. Leigh and Eoin’s names go against them but you have to mention the part Paul played in both of them.”
Hibs’ two-goal lead, however, lasted just two minutes as a defensive mix-up allowed Gary Mackay-Steven to slide home a lifeline for United after goalkeeper Ben Williams was unable to properly deal with Hanlon’s pass back. Thankfully, though, it counted for little, although McGivern admitted he was relieved to see a Rudi Skacel “goal” chalked off for offside and then a volley from the Czech thud back off the crossbar with Williams beaten.
McGivern said: “Ben said himself he should probably have cleared it but we all make mistakes at some stage and it’s up to your team-mates to help. We attack and defend as a team and, at the end of the day, we came away with a very good result.”
Hibs’ impressive start to the season does, of course, increasingly bring the question as to whether Fenlon’s side can continue their run, but McGivern was reluctant to start making predictions, other than to admit he and his team-mates are enjoying their current lofty position but are determined to take each game as it comes rather than dream of what might be.
He said: “We knew before the game we’d another chance to go back to the top and now it is a case of being happy to be there. We knew United were going to be a test for us after what happened on the first day of the season as it was a very satisfying result, even if we had our backs to the wall at times in the second half.
“We’ve also shown we are not just a one-man team, we are a good unit which is working well together all over the park. We’ve played everyone, some of them twice, now and there’s nothing we need fear. We’ve won three on the bounce, we are unbeaten at home and we have to concentrate on keeping that consistency going.
“We may not turn in the best of performances at times, but as long as we are playing winning football, digging out the results, we’ll be happy.”