UNDER any other circumstances, hat-trick hero Liam Craig’s name would have been the one on the lips of supporters as they filed out of Easter Road last night.
But it was the performance of Abdellah Zoubir which stole the show and had the Hibs faithful raving.
The Frenchman made his first start for the club in this enthralling victory, having played a total of just 18 minutes in his two previous substitute appearances against St Johnstone and St Mirren.
The Hibs fans have been desperate to see more of the midfielder – signed from Istres in the summer – and, when he was given his chance, he didn’t disappoint.
He danced, flicked and tricked his way past the Stranraer defenders and produced flashes of brilliance throughout the 87 minutes that he was on the park.
Although they leaked three goals at the back, Zoubir’s contribution ensured that Hibs also created plenty of chances at the other end and boss Pat Fenlon was just delighted to see his side safely into the hat for the quarter-finals.
He conceded that they will probably still take some stick for doing things the hard way but insisted that both sides should take credit for the attack-minded manner in which they went about their business.
Admitting that the scoreline could have been even higher, Fenlon said: “People criticise us if we are too negative and now we will be criticised for being too attack-minded. We can’t win, can we?
“It was a decent game and Stranraer played really well. They scored some decent goals, there were a lot of chances at both ends and the scoreline could have been even higher, probably even 7-6 would have been fair.
“There were a lot of attacking players in the team and we created a lot of chances.”
Those three goals by Craig – one a penalty – another by Zoubir and an own goal by Scott Rumsby ensured Hibs progressed, but how Stranraer made them work for victory.
They had opened the scoring after only three minutes at Easter Road, hauled themselves back to 4-2 and then 4-3 through a spectacular Chris Aitken effort and a Michael Nelson own goal, and generally refused to accept that they were beaten until the final whistle.
Fenlon continued: “We knew that it was going to be a tough game because they beat Ross County in the last round.
“We were a little bit sloppy at times. We conceded the early goal but we got ourselves back into it and I thought that we played well, especially in the first half.”
The Stair Park side may be second bottom of League One but they stunned their hosts by taking the lead with just a few minutes on the clock.
The home end was silenced when Jamie Longworth had all the space and time he needed to head home from Aitken’s cross.
However, the prospect of an upset lessened when Hibs drew level in under five minutes and it was again a header which beat the goalkeeper, Craig diverting the ball beyond David Mitchell from Rowan Vine’s ball in.
Nelson could have edged Hibs in front on 19 minutes when he got on the end of a Craig free kick, but this time Mitchell managed to tip his headed effort round his right-hand stick.
Then Craig’s had a go himself, racing into the box to meet a ball in from Alan Maybury, but he could only head straight into the arms of the keeper.
Hibs had looked committed from start to finish against St Mirren at the weekend but some slackness had crept back into their play and that must have given Stranraer a sense of encouragement.
Zoubir was starting show some touches of genius and he fired Hibs in front – with the aid of a deflection off Rumsby – ten minutes before the break when he cut in from the left, stepping away from first one, then another Stranraer defender before unleashing a powerful effort.
Within 90 seconds, Rumsby was again left with his head in his hands when he turned the ball past his own keeper inside the six-yard box.
Hibs scored their fourth in 48 minutes when Vine’s ball over the top fell perfectly for Craig, who took one touch before slotting under Mitchell.
Within minutes, Stranraer had pulled it back to 4-2 and what a goal it was, Chris Aitken producing a brilliant dipping finish from 30 yards that even had the Hibs fans applauding.
Zoubir again left the Stranraer defenders rooted to the spot at the other end and got another shot in but it was sent behind for a corner by Rumsby.
It was 4-3 on 52 minutes when an Aitken corner was headed into his own net, inexplicably, by Nelson.
It was an entertaining tie for a neutral but those in the home stands, never mind the home dugout, must have felt that they were being put through the wringer.
However the award of a penalty kick, conceded by the unfortunate Rumsby for handball, helped settle their nerves.
There were no prizes for guessing who would take it and, taking a run-up from outside the box, Craig made no mistake, rifling the ball high into the centre of the net.
Craig admitted that bagging a hat-trick in front of the home fans was a special moment for him but, with the league game against Inverness just a couple of days away, insisted that he won’t have much time to dwell on the achievement.
“It was my first goal for the club at Easter Road so it is a special moment,” he said. “It is something I can look back on but for now it’s all about Saturday. We are back to league business and we want to continue this run. That’s six games now and regardless who you are playing, it is still six games unbeaten.”
Goals proved hard to come by for Hibs in the early part of this season, but both Paul Heffernan – who was cup-tied for last night’s match – and James Collins have contributed strikes in recent weeks. And Craig firmly believes there are now a number of players throughout the side who are more than capable of weighing in with a few of their own.
He continued: “We have got goals throughout the team, even looking at the back, with James McPake and Paul Hanlon and big Nelson.
“They are all a threat at set pieces and then you look in the midfield … Robbo has already scored, myself, Zoubir … I think we have goals in us and then there’s Alex Harris and Danny Handling, who aren’t even in the squad and they have goals in them.
“Then there are the strikers, so there are goals in the team and it’s just nice that we are scoring and taking the chances.
“Even on Saturday, I know it was 2-0, but I think it was clear to everyone that it could have been four or five and that would have been a fair result.”