An Anthony Stokes-inspired Hibs cruised into the last eight of the Betfred Cup as they took Ayr United apart with a highly-polished performance which could have seen them easily score more than the five they did.
Stokes, starting his first match since an EFL Cup victory for Blackburn Rovers against Crewe last August, opened the scoring, the first to react as he met Danny Swanson’s deflected corner. He then supplied Simon Murray with his ninth goal of the season with a delightful through ball.
Stokes claimed his second and Hibs’ third with a tap-in from Murray’s tempting cross and Efe Ambrose added a fourth with more than 20 minutes remaining on the clock.
Time enough for substitute Deivydas Matulevicius to get his first goal for Hibs, the Lithuanian internationalist cracking a loose ball home for Hibs’ fifth of the night.
Hibs and Ayr United had crossed swords as recently as the end of April before going their separate ways, the Capital side to the Premiership while Ian McCall’s players suffered the pain of relegation to League One.
That match at Somerset Park, the penultimate Championship game, was won 4-0 by Hibs but, as they prepared for this Betfred Cup tie, they’d no doubt have been reminded that Ayr proved somewhat meddlesome last season, in fact the only team to have departed Easter Road with a league victory to their name.
McCall would have reminded his players of that achievement and that on their other league visit to Edinburgh they’d emerged with a merited draw, not that they’d have required much in the way of a morale-boosting talk after topping their group by winning all four games – including one against near neighbours and Premiership outfit Kilmarnock – scoring 15 goals in the process. And all that followed by the 5-1 demolition of Albion Rovers as they got their league campaign underway at the weekend.
Neil Lennon made four changes from the side which had marked Hibs’ return to the top flight after a three-year absence with a 3-1 win over Partick Thistle, Steven Whittaker, Martin Boyle, Paul Hanlon and Marvin Bartley all dropping out as David Gray, Darren McGregor, Ryan Porteous and Stokes were drafted into the starting line-up.
The presence of 18-year-old Porteous, who has enjoyed an impressive season so far which has apparently persuaded Lennon not to send him out on loan as was initially intended, would have been of interest to Scotland Under-21 coach Scot Gemmill sitting in the main stand.
The pairing of Simon Murray and Stokes up front was a new one and there were a couple of early signs of frustration from the former Celtic man as they understandably failed to hit it off immediately.
However, it didn’t take them long to click, Stokes creating the first half-chance, as he drifted out wide as his wont to deliver an inviting cross which eluded both his strike partner and the inrushing Gray at the back post.
Stokes got himself up and running for the third time as a Hibs player, the first to react as Swanson’s corner clipped a head, nodding home from inside the six-yard box.
It was, of course, Stokes’ first Hibs goal since that glory double in the Scottish Cup final of 14 months ago and he went close to adding another, creating space to fire in a rising shot which sailed inches wide of Ayr goalkeeper Jordan Hart’s right-hand post.
Ayr, in common with most sides visiting Easter Road last season, had made no secret of a game plan intended to frustrate and try to nick a goal on the break – a tactic which obviously worked well for them. However, on this occasion with no league points at stake, McCall’s men were more adventurous, knocking the ball around with confidence when they could get hold of it.
There were a couple of momentary scares for the Hibs defence but goalkeeper Ofir Marciano remained untroubled as Stokes turned provider, slipping a delightful pas through for Murray to notch his ninth goal of the season.
As much as they tried to haul themselves into the game, the part-timers of Ayr were struggling to cope with the high-energy approach of their hosts with Stokes enjoying a free rein to play wherever the notion took him, the 29-year-old again going close with an audacious, angled chip which didn’t miss the far post by much.
It was beginning to become very much one-way traffic as the half-time whistle approached, Ayr happy to hang on to give themselves a much-needed chance to draw breath and regroup for the second 45.
Ayr needed the next goal to have any hope of retrieving the situation and they were left forlornly claiming for a penalty when substitute David Ferguson attempted to turn Craig McGuffie’s deep ball back across goal. It came off Lewis Stevenson but referee Kevin Clancy saw nothing more than a corner in it.
Hibs had been finding it so easy central defender Ambrose set off on an overlapping run at one point in search of some action but, with that two-goal cushion, Lennon’s players had decidedly taken their foot off the gas, bringing Lennon to the edge of his technical area to make a few points.
Lennon’s presence appeared to have the desired effect, John McGinn feeding Simon Murray down the left flank, the striker swinging in a terrific cross which travelled beyond the back post but there was Stokes to turn it home and send Hibs into the last eight of the competition.
Other than dealing with the odd passback, Marciano had been a virtual spectator but showed he’d retained his concentration as he got himself in the right place to easily hold Ferguson’s shot, the first on target Ayr had managed in all of 60 minutes.
The home fans were treated to a fourth goal and Ambrose’s trademark double backward somersault celebration, the Nigerian internationalist on hand to prod the ball home after McGinn’s corner had broken to him only inches out.
By this stage, the Ayr players were probably just wishing the stadium clock to run that little bit faster as the onslaught continued, Stokes denied a hat-trick as his shot was deflected wide, McGinn curling one just over and then Matulevicius only inches away from his first Hibs goal having met Gray’s cross with a glancing header.
But “big Davie” wasn’t to be denied, hammering home a loose ball from ten yards to make it five for the Hibees and to complete a comprehensive victory.
Even then it could have been more, the offside flag chalking off Porteous’ strike before McGinn drove a Stokes cut-back inches over.
Hibs (3-5-2): Marciano; Ambrose, McGregor, Porteous; Gray, McGeouch (Matulevicius 76), McGinn, Swanson (Slivka 64), Stevenson; S Murray (Boyle 64), Stokes. Unused subs: Laidlaw, Whittaker, Fontaine, F Murray.
Ayr United (4-4-2): Hart; Higgins, Rose, P Boyle, Reid; McDaid (Forrest 46), Docherty, Geggan, McGuffie (Murphy 64); Moffat, Moore (Ferguson 46). Unused subs: Gilmour, Faulds, Avci, McCowan.
Referee: Kevin Clancy