Steve Cowan today predicted a few more anxious afternoons for Hibs fans this season but insisted there’s no need to worry.
The Easter Road side, favourites to take the Championship title, top the table only on goal difference from their main rivals Dundee United after being beaten by the Tannadice outfit on December 2.
That defeat, only Hibs’ second in the league this season, prompted many questions from some fans, suddenly concerned at the ability of Neil Lennon’s players to nail promotion at the third time of asking.
And their mood wasn’t lifted to any great extent as Lennon’s side struggled to find top gear against Dumbarton last weekend, the manager himself admitting they’d made a sluggish start to both halves of the game even although they eventually ran out comfortable winners thanks to goals from Paul Hanlon and Brian Graham.
Cowan, who was at the match as a summariser for Radio Forth, agreed with the overwhelming opinion that it had been far-from-entertaining viewing for the near 14,000 crowd, but the former Hibs striker insisted such performances will readily be forgotten should his old club end the season where they want to be.
However, he was equally adamant Lennon’s players will have to dig deep and grind out results as they did against Dumbarton on a number of occasions between now and then.
He said: “Saturday was one of those games you just have to win. There will probably be another six or seven of those when they aren’t playing particularly well that they’ll have to simply make sure they get the three points.
“Whether it is 1-0, 2-1 or whatever doesn’t matter. I know the Hibs fans will want to see decent football every week but the aim surely has to be to win games and get out of this league.”
Hibs, of course, were handicapped, as they will for for another few weeks, by the absence of key midfielders John McGinn and Fraser Fyvie although the imminent return of striker James Keatings after a two-month absence with a knee injury should widen Lennon’s options.
Jason Cummings started his first match in eight weeks after a loss of form resulted in him being dropped and the return of McGinn and Fyvie after Christmas will, insisted Cowan, bring a fresh impetus.
He said: “The squad is stretched just now but hopefully once they get by Christmas there’s going to be 18 or 19 players available although there’s always the chance of one or two more injuries or suspensions. But that happens to every team.
“McGinn drives the team forward, creates opportunities and gets shots away. That’s missing from Hibs’ armoury at the moment. Getting Keatings back will be good because he’ll score goals in the Championship but Hibs will also be looking to Cummings, Grant Holt and Brian Graham.
“I also think Andrew Shinnie can get goals, someone who can find those little pockets and someone who can make those runs in behind.”
Cowan concedes that sitting in the stand watching can make it easy to criticise but, he believes there was obvious scope for improvement.
He said: “For me, Saturday was not the type of game where Hibs needed a sitting midfielder. Marvin Bartley is a decent player but I felt they could have been a bit more forward thinking.
“Martin Boyle had been scoring goals but he was played in that area behind the strikers which caused a bit confusion while I thought the delivery from wide areas from David Gray and Lewis Stevenson wasn’t particularly good.
“However, having said that, they got the result, the three points and you have to applaud them for grinding out the win.”
Dumbarton’s shock Scottish Cup defeat by Bonnyrigg Rose a few days earlier may have led to some believing Hibs would enjoy a runaway victory but, Cowan pointed out, Steven Aitken’s players would have been determined not to suffer another humiliation – even if he did feel Sons defender Daniel Harvey could easily have picked up a first-half red card for a crude tackle on Hibs skipper Gray.
He said: “Dumbarton set themselves up to make life difficult. They were aggressive and pushed up to make Hibs kick the ball long at times. I thought Harvey was lucky to stay on the pitch.
“His tackle on Gray was high and it could have been a red card. Hibs are the title favourites, they are the Scottish Cup holders and they know they will have to put up with teams looking to make things as tough as they can for them particularly at Easter Road.”
If Hibs’ overall performance was rather unimpressive Cowan believes they can be pleased with the fact they clocked up yet another clean sheet, their ninth in 16 league games with goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw, standing in for the injured Ofir Marciano, not having a single shot to save in the entire 90 minutes.
He said: “That’s a testament to the whole team. They’re playing the 3-5-2 formation Alan Stubbs had to a degree last season and it seems to be working well.
“There may be times when Hibs have to gamble. If they are going into the last ten or 15 minutes of a game looking for a goal, you can do that as long as your defensive-minded players are aware of what they are doing. If someone goes you stay, if you go, he stays.”
If the fans’ patience has been tested in the last couple of weeks, Cowan expects them to endure more of the same on Saturday when Lennon takes his side to Cappielow to face fourth-placed Morton in a game which kicks off at 5.15pm.
Morton suffered their first defeat in eight Championship matches as they went down to Dunfermline at East End Park last weekend, a game described by boss Jim Duffy as “a bad day at the office.”
But former Aberdeen and Motherwell hitman Cowan doesn’t anticipate that setback preying on the minds of a side which caused Hibs a few problems last season.
He said: “Morton have been palying well, Jim will have them well drilled so patience will be the key. Hibs will need to wait for their opportunities and hopefully take them.
“Another clean sheet would give them the platform to win and I think they’ll get the three points as Hibs are the best team in the league.”