Hibs boss targets winning Championship title

Jason Cummings scores in the fourth minute of added-on time. Picture: Greg Macvean

Jason Cummings scores in the fourth minute of added-on time. Picture: Greg Macvean

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That precious commodity, time. Alan Stubbs had too little of it at the beginning of the season and then found the clock running away from him at the end of it.

Even five minutes added on at what was already an extended campaign wasn’t enough for the Hibs boss and his players who were left agonisingly short of their goal of following Capital rivals Hearts back into the Premiership.

But amid the bitter disappointment there was an appreciation from the Easter Road fans – many of whom had gathered outside the ground to vent their spleen in the wake of relegation a year ago – for the way in which their club has been turned around under the former Celtic and Everton defender.

There has been plenty of change in Leith over the past ten months, much of it behind the scenes under the direction of chief executive Leeann Dempster and George Craig, head of football operations.

However, it is what happens out there on the pitch by which the vast majority of supporters judge the work of those employed by the club, a unity and sense of purpose having replaced the understandable rage which had gripped Hibs after they’d plummeted like a stone under Terry Butcher.

Yes, it’s now going to take at least one more season to return Hibs to the top flight, but Stubbs is convinced that target can be met and work is already underway to retain those players he wants to keep to meet that challenge who are now heading into the final days of their contracts.

Liam Fontaine, Lewis Stevenson, Scott Robertson, Liam Craig, Fraser Fyvie and Tomas Cerny find themselves in that situation while the loan deals of Mark Oxley, Dylan McGeouch, Tomas Cerny, Keith Watson and Martin Boyle are also set to expire.

Whether they fancy another year in the second tier is, as Stubbs conceded, a factor as is the fact a number of them could attract attention from elsewhere, something that again is out of his hands.

And although Scott Allan has another year of his contract to run, the Championship’s player of the year is certain to be of interest to others although the midfielder, who turned in yet another man-of-the-match display in what turned out to be Hibs’ last of the season, insisted he intends to hang around for another tilt at promotion

“As I said when I came here, I want to get this club back up,” he said. “The fans are back with us after a hard year last year and we have good management. We just need to start again for next season and hope we do what Hearts did, win the league comfortably.”

While few would expect any side to run away with the title in the manner Robbie Neilson’s troops did this season, Stubbs said: “I honestly feel if we keep them together we’ll go up automatically next year.

“You know me, I’m not one for making predictions I don’t believe in. I honestly believe we’ll go up next year. I think the team is good enough. I want to try and take all these play-off games out of the equation and do it the way Hearts did it this year.

“The budget will still be the same next year, so I’m hopeful I can keep all these players. The one thing I can’t stop is if someone likes one of my players. I can’t stop them bidding, I can stop it if it’s not enough.

“When you have good players, there’s always interest but we’ll do everything we can to hold onto our best players.”

But while this is a time to look forward it’s also the stage in the season when everyone looks back and wonders “what if,” and in Hibs’ case that will undoubtedly focus on points frittered away and losing striker Farid El Alagui for seven months to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

As far as Stubbs is concerned, though, the one thing he’d have liked more than anything was a little more time before the season got underway, the Goodison Park youth coach arriving in Edinburgh to find he had barely enough players to field a team and then have three more head for the exit door.

He said: “We lost out on being a competitive force because we just didn’t give ourselves enough time and preparation to get close to Hearts.”

Nevertheless, Stubbs forged a team widely regarded as being the best footballing side in the Championship and one which he feels could quite easily be facing Motherwell in the Premiership play-off final rather than Rangers although the two-goal lead the Ibrox club had engineered in Govan a few days earlier proved too great a hurdle.

Hibs went into this match knowing they had to score the first goal but, alas for them, it didn’t come until the fourth minute of added-on time, Jason Cummings curling home his 21st goal of the season just seconds after team-mate Paul Hanlon had seen a snap-shot clip the outside of Cammy Bell’s post.

It was too little too late, leaving everyone to reflect on what might have been given Hibs pummelled Stuart McCall’s side from first minute to last, Bell saving from Fraser Fyvie and Cummings and twice getting his fingertips to dangerous crosses in an opening spell in which Stubb’s players threatened to blow their opponents away.

Again, though, despite the presence of Cummings and Dominique Malonga, the scorers of 37 goals between them, Hibs lacked that clinical cutting edge just as they had in the first leg.

Nevertheless, McCall was a mightily relieved man on the final whistle, his side’s intentions of defending their lead clear from the outset, an adventurous effort from Haris Vuckic the only moment of worry for Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley.

Rangers, too, were street-wise, content to break up play with a string of niggly fouls while time-wasting was also evident, Stubbs feeling referee John Beaton, despite booking the former Hearts duo of Lee Wallace and Ian Black for such offences, took too long to clamp down.

The Hibs head coach said: “I thought the referee allowed them to take all the time in the world. That’s what I will say. It took him 75 minutes before he cautioned a player for wasting time. These are little things, but they all add up in the end.

“I would just like to have scored a little earlier in the game to test their resolve that bit more. I don’t think anyone could have argued had it been us who went through. It was closely contested and we just needed to score the goal.”