Anthony Brown: Playing catch-up, but Hibs on right track

Hibs star Dominique Malonga is one of a number of the squad who could comfortably play in Scotland's top flight
Hibs star Dominique Malonga is one of a number of the squad who could comfortably play in Scotland's top flight
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There was never likely to be a quick fix at Hibs after the sudden trauma of relegation, and so it is proving.

While administration-hit Hearts had a full season to prepare for the likelihood of dropping into the Championship, the Easter Road club were caught on the hop by their totally unforeseen slump under Terry Butcher which took them from European contenders in early January to the second tier by the end of May.

Their remarkable collapse left the forward-thinking new chief executive Leeann Dempster with a huge job on her hands as she arrived in May to embark on a major overhaul of the club, while Alan Stubbs, appointed head coach just six weeks before the league opener, started the season with a squad which was nowhere near equipped for a title challenge.

Hibs’ desire to make sure they signed the right type of players – rather than adopt the scattergun approach of previous years – meant they had only three new recruits, Farid El Alagui, David Gray and Mark Oxley, deemed ready to start their opening league game, at home to Livingston.

Almost half of Hibs’ impressive array of new recruits arrived after the big kick-off, with the likes of Dominique Malonga, Jake Sinclair and Liam Fontaine also coming in short of match fitness. Hearts, by contrast, had already spent pre-season gelling summer signings James Keatings, Osman Sow, Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben Neil Alexander and Alim Ozturk with a group of highly-regarded young players buoyed by a rousing finish to the previous season. As results have shown, they were ready to hit the ground running.

In short, through no fault of Dempster and Stubbs, Hibs have constantly been playing catch-up in relation to their city rivals – and Rangers, for that matter – and it is being reflected in their patchy league form. Given their constant struggles against the lesser lights of the Championship, there remains an understandable element of scepticism among the support, but, if we judge the club on the basis of the significant work that has been undertaken since relegation, they look to be heading in the right direction.

The majority of the squad they have assembled would be comfortable playing in the Premiership. No-one can suggest, for instance, that St Johnstone, Motherwell or Kilmarnock would turn down the chance to add any of Liam Craig, Scott Robertson, Scott Allan, Paul Hanlon, David Gray, Malonga, Farid El Alagui, Fontaine or Matt Kennedy to their ranks. Indeed it is not inconceivable that the current Hibs squad would fare better in the Premiership than they are in the Championship.

Still a work in progress, they are yet to develop the ruthless streak required to kill off fired-up Championship rivals and look far more comfortable when less is expected of them, as was the case against Ross County in the League Cup and in their impressive 3-1 victory at Ibrox last week.

While Stubbs, understandably, refuses to rule his side out of the title race, it is also notable that he has declined the opportunity to say that his side will win the Championship. He knows there is still work to be done to get Hibs winning consistently, and even if they do go on a run in the coming months, it is unlikely to come soon enough to reel in a rampant Hearts side who show no sign of running off course. Or indeed a Rangers team who, despite their flaws, still have a knack for winning matches.

Hibs’ draw with Raith Rovers on Saturday was far from shameful but, coming on the back of two rousing away victories, it was particularly deflating for their fans as it underlined that they are not yet ready to assert themselves as a big fish in the division.

While Stubbs, pictured, is perfectly right to insist that his side are judged at the end of the season, rather than in the autumn, it is hard to escape the feeling that Hibs are destined to finish third or fourth and will then have to take their chances in the play-offs. That should not equate to failure given the mess Dempster and Stubbs inherited in the summer. Indeed, it may be next season before we really see the best of Stubbs and his carefully-assembled squad.