Hibs savoured their most satisfying result yet of this difficult season as a valiant performance in the Dingwall drizzle took them into the quarter-finals of the League Cup.
After a turbulent start to life in the Championship, in which they have managed only two unconvincing wins from their six matches so far, this was more like it for the 277 hardy Hibs supporters who made the long trek to the Highlands hoping to see an upturn in fortunes.
After being humbled by Falkirk, Alloa and Queen of the South, and making heavy weather of home wins over Dumbarton and Cowdenbeath in their previous five games, Hibs looked liberated in their role as underdogs – of sorts – against a Ross County side a league above them, albeit rock-bottom of the Premiership with zero points.
Recent recruit Dominique Malonga did the damage for the Edinburgh side with an excellent headed double in the first half, and certainly before the break he was the standout player on the pitch before his shortage of match fitness began to show as the game wore on.
It wasn’t all about the big French-born Congolese striker, though. For all that this wasn’t the most swashbuckling display by Hibs, it was a solid and spirited team performance as they found themselves on the back foot for long periods.
Head coach Alan Stubbs deployed his team, containing three personnel changes from Saturday’s defeat at Queens, in a new-look 3-5-2 formation, with Jordon Forster and Liam Fontaine flanking Paul Hanlon. After a few early teething problems as County piled on the pressure, Hibs soon steadied the ship and eased their way into the game before carving out a two-goal lead by the 36-minute mark.
From then on, with Fontaine and Hanlon immense at the back and recalled captain Liam Craig leading by example in midfield, there was a general sense that Hibs were in control. Only after the 82nd-minute dismissal of visiting midfielder Dylan McGeouch did the hosts really threaten to get themselves back into the game. Their late rally, which included a disallowed goal, wasn’t enough to stop the visitors recording their first clean sheet of the season and only their third of 2014.
After a season of decent general play with little reward so far, this was the type of ruthless, focused-on-the-prize type of performance head coach Alan Stubbs had been waiting for. “It was a night of positives all round,” he said. “We played well and I don’t think anyone could say we didn’t deserve to win the game. Having said that, we have played better than that and lost this season.
“We’ve created more chances in other games and not been as ruthless, but we showed the ruthless edge that we’ve been looking for. I still think we can play better, but getting the two-goal lead gave us a platform to believe in ourselves. Once we got to 2-0 we defended much better as a team. I didn’t ever feel as if we were hanging on.”
After a bright start by County in which Rocco Quinn and Graham Carey both went desperately close, Malonga signalled his intent with a jinking seventh-minute run to the edge of the box before unleashing a “zinger”, as strike partner Jason Cummings would say, which clipped the crossbar on its way over. Forster then went close with a header in the 20th minute after ghosting in to meet a dangerous, inswinging free-kick by Craig at the back post, but Filip Kiss was perfectly stationed on the goal-line to scramble the ball away.
Hibs were not to be denied for much longer, though. In the 22nd minute, Craig, who had been left out of the previous two games, scampered down the left and chipped in a beautiful cross for Malonga, who planted a firm header past ex-Hibee Mark Brown from eight yards out.
After a brief scare when County striker Yoann Arquin got in behind the Hibs defence and screwed his shot horribly wide, the visitors doubled their advantage in the 36th minute with virtually a carbon copy of the first goal. Malonga, whose close control and composure on the ball were a joy to behold, collected possession around halfway and played a lovely weighted pass out to left wing-back Lewis Stevenson. The duo surged in tandem towards the County goal, with Stevenson, from the same position as Craig, delivering an inch-perfect cross which was gleefully headed in by Malonga.
The travelling support were loving it and, likewise, the manager revelled in seeing such clinical finishing by the man he brought in to replace injured top scorer Farid El Alagui. “The two balls into the box were right on the money and Dominique finished them with real quality,” purred Stubbs. “He was deadly. Sometimes you can just head those ones in, but he bulleted them in. We’d seen him do that in the clips we’d seen of him – that’s why we signed him.”
Given Hibs’ renowned frailty in recent seasons, a 2-0 lead is never a guarantee of success. They endured a frantic moment just before the break when goalkeeper Mark Oxley punched a cross tamely into the path of Kiss, but the Slovakian’s goalbound shot was headed off the line by the defiant Craig who had raced back to cover.
Hibs had a chance to kill the tie two minutes after the restart, but young Cummings, making his first start of the season, smashed a David Gray cross against the post from six yards out. “Jason should have scored,” said Stubbs. “When my striker gets into a great position like that, I want him to reward himself with a goal.”
Hibs were generally weathering the County storm although the hosts did go desperately close in 67 minutes when substitute Liam Boyce arced a header just past the post.
It was only in the last eight minutes that Hibs really had to dig deep after McGeouch was shown a straight red card when he bolted across to halt Joe Cardle and ended up catching the winger late. Stubbs felt the speed at which the pair collided made the challenge seem worse than it was. “I’ve seen people do that and get a yellow card,” he said. “The reason Dylan was sent off is that he came across at real pace and the lad was trying to get away from him at pace.
“When pace meets pace, it becomes a collision. I think it was very harsh on Dylan to be sent off. I don’t want anything to take the gloss off the result, though. It’s just great to be in the next round and looking forward to the draw.”