The 3300-strong green and white army massed behind Mark Oxley’s goal may have been fretting throughout that first half as Raith Rovers threatened to end Hibs’ Scottish Cup dream before it had hardly started.
But while he shared their frustration, head coach Alan Stubbs insisted he remained unperturbed as he watched his players struggle to find their passing game.
Unhappy he certainly was, but despite a far from satisfactory performance Stubbs retained his unshakeable faith in his players, confident he’d get the response he was looking for after a few sharp words at half-time.
“We were not our normal selves,” he admitted. “I thought we were a team that was waiting for something to happen rather than making something happen. At half-time I just had a few words with them. I was not happy with them whatsoever but I know what we have got and I knew what response I would get and when you look at the two halves, it was night and day.”
The message was simply “pull the finger out”, an order to up their game against a side they’d faced only seven days earlier when they’d clocked up a third successive, if narrow, victory over them.
Previous results may have left Stubbs’ players in something of a comfort zone in that lacklustre display in the opening period, Hibs toiling to retain possession and failing to engineer one clear opening throughout the 45 minutes. The flip side, however, was that Raith did little with the possession they enjoyed, the nearest they came to scoring coming when Marvin Bartley slid in on a low James Craigen cross only to turn the ball towards his own goal from close range. The Raith supporters had hardly begun to rise from their seats to acclaim an own goal when goalkeeper Oxley threw himself down low to his right to prevent the ball crossing the line.
Rovers boss Ray McKinnon was left to reflect on what might have been had his side taken that early lead, conceding afterwards that failing to capitalise when on top had cost the Fife club dearly. “Had we scored it might have been different,” he admitted. “I said to my players at half-time that we could go on and win. But Hibs are a right good team with some really good players, some match winners.
“When they lose someone like Jason Cummings and bring in Chris Dagnall it shows you the gulf in terms of where we are as a club. I can’t fault my players, they gave everything but ran out of steam.
“It’s very difficult to contain or dominate a team like Hibs for 90 minutes. They were going to get their spell and when they did, they scored two goals. That’s the difference between us and them. They punished us when they were on top.”
Hibs’ “spell” encompassed three second-half minutes, the opener coming from the right boot of defender Darren McGregor, his first goal for the club he’s supported all his life and the Easter Road outfit’s 1000th in the Scottish Cup.
Raith goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert would undoubtedly feel he should have saved it but perhaps McGregor’s decision to take a bouncing ball first time after defender Kyle Benedictus had taken a fresh air shot at Lewis Stevenson’s cross took him by surprise as it zipped under his body.
McGregor’s goal settled any nerves there might have been and Dominique Malonga ended the game as a contest, taking Stevenson’s pass and, with little backlift, hammering an unstoppable shot into the top corner of Cuthbert’s net in a style reminiscent to one of the goals he claimed at Dumbarton last season.
McGregor had started the match on the bench, and new signing Niklas Gunnarsson was given the nod to start in place of skipper David Gray who is suffering from a knee knock. Dagnall replaced Cummings, Hibs’ top scorer, up-front, Stubbs revealing the 20-year-old had spent the week in his sick bed although that wasn’t enough to silence the conspiracy theorists suspecting it was merely a cover story with the transfer window open and one of the hottest young talents in Scottish football said to be attracting a host of admirers.
Stubbs said: “Jason was struggling all week. We’d had a few conversations. I spoke to him last Sunday and he sounded really rough. I spoke to him as the week went on but he was still under the weather.”
The gamble to throw in both Gunnarsson and Dagnall into a match of such significance did, Stubbs concede, carry a measure of risk, but on the plus side he insisted: “It gave them an idea of what it is like straight away and from that point of view it will have done them the world of good.
“Niklas has been training but he hadn’t played a game for the best part of five weeks. Chris looked better, he needed last week’s training. He had some nice touches and was unlucky not to get on the score sheet.”
The introduction of McGregor for Gunnarsson and Liam Henderson (for Bartley) made an impact and allowed Hibs to gain a grip on the match, Stubbs admitting: “We were just not getting the basics right. We were not winning second balls, we were taking touches into bodies rather than away and weren’t making the pitch big enough and stretching them.
“The players were not linking up well, we weren’t playing with the same intelligence. The second half was much better, more like us.
“We took the game by the scruff of the neck and in the end, while I would not say it was comfortable, I don’t think the result was in doubt.”
Now Hibs await tonight’s fifth-round draw, Stubbs of course well aware of the club’s miserable history in the competition, having described getting his hands on the trophy as the Easter Road outfit’s “Holy Grail”, insisting he can still dream.
‘Is this Hibs’ year?’ is the annual question posed to successive Hibs managers, each obviously replying that they hope so. In that regard Stubbs is no different to his predecessors, the former Celtic and Everton stopper saying: “We’ll wait and see.
“As long as we are still in it we can keep dreaming. Just four more wins and with the support we had today I hope we can repay them. The support we are getting at this moment is nothing short of fantastic.”