Hibs head coach’s confidence in changes vindicated

Martin Boyle was alert to score the third after Chris Dagnall's shot was deflected. Picture: Greg Macvean
Martin Boyle was alert to score the third after Chris Dagnall's shot was deflected. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Alan Stubbs has repeatedly claimed such is the strength in depth of his squad he is spoiled for choice, adamant he can makes changes with little or no impact on the outcome of matches.

He put his faith to the test against Alloa in opting for a radical overhaul of the side which had sent Hearts crashing out of the Scottish Cup, the enforced absence of Lewis Stevenson through suspension merely the starting point.

Six others, skipper David Gray, John McGinn, Darren McGregor, Anthony Stokes, Kevin Thomson and Jason Cummings all found themselves warming the bench while others were given the opportunity to show what they can do.

It was all done with a punishing schedule of four matches in ten days in mind with trips to Dumbarton and Dumfries to follow Wednesday’s rearranged game against Morton. So the visit of the Championship’s basement side provided the perfect opportunity to rest key players.

Given the increasing importance of each Championship fixture as Hibs seek to chase down leaders Rangers – who remain eight points ahead having played a game extra – some might have viewed such a drastic overhaul as a bit of a gamble although Stubbs would undoubtedly argue it merely reflected his belief that the strength and quality of his squad is such he can indulge in wholesale changes with little if any discernible impact on performance.

Even so, the head coach would have realised he would be in the firing line had Alloa, having held Rangers to a draw last week, emerged from this confrontation with anything to show.

Stubbs, however, emerged vindicated, goals in either half from Martin Boyle – who was starting his first game in two months – and Dan Carmichael, the midfielder’s first for the club in a season which has been plagued by injury thus far, completing a routine if unspectacular 3-0 victory.

And, as far as, James Keatings was concerned, there was never any danger of the tinkering backfiring big style.

“It wasn’t a worry,” insisted the striker, “We have a confident squad. We have the boys who can come in and get the job done and we did that.

“We are confident in every player in the changing room. We know every one can step in at any time. The manager will have his strongest team, but we have a strong, strong squad.

“There’s a lot of games coming up, there will definitely be injuries at some point and the ones who have been on the fringes have to be ready to step in and take their chance. We’ve a big run of matches and everyone will have their part to play, we have to keep winning.”

Any concerns that Stubbs may have gone too far in making the changes and a switch to a 3-5-2 formation with goalscorers Boyle and Carmichael as wing-backs, soon vanished. Liam Henderson showed fantastic vision to pick out Boyle stealing in behind the Alloa defence from the opposite flank and Boyle lofted the ball over the head of Wasps goalkeeper Scott Gallacher 
before tapping home his fourth goal of the season.

Although Hibs continued to dominate the opening quarter of the game, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Steven Hetherington knocked the ball into the arms of Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley, who then had to fist away a dangerous free-kick from Connor McManus.

The atmosphere inside Easter Road was, not surprisingly, much less boisterous than Tuesday night. The 8765 was boosted by 80 travelling fans and the Hibs support waited for Stubbs’ players to get them off their seats. But the game lacked the tempo and intensity of the derby and was played at a far more leisurely pace which suited the part-timers of Alloa.

Wasps boss Jack Ross would know his side’s best chance of taking something from the game would probably come from a set-piece and Boyle’s block on Finnie gave McManus another chance to test Oxley, the goalkeeper having to look lively to push the midfielder’s effort aside.

Finding virtually every opposition player the other side of the ball wasn’t a new experience for Hibs, time and again this season they’ve had to display patience when confronted by such tactics and, again, they were forced to diligently probe for gaps, enjoying half-chances rather than clear-cut scoring opportunities.

But that approach paid off, Keatings supplying a defence-splitting pass, playing the ball inside Finnie, for Carmichael to side-foot across Gallagher and in at the far post.

That second goal gave Hibs the breathing space they were looking for and the confidence to go searching for more after the interval although Niklas Gunnarsson’s slip on the 
halfway line allowed Alloa a two-on-one opening. Michael Duffy was supported to his left by Isaac Layne but Marvin Bartley back-tracked superbly and nipped the danger in the bud although Oxley was left looking on anxiously as Duffy’s chip sailed over his head and the bar.

Other than that, though, it was very much a case of backs-to-wall for Alloa as they sought to repel repeated attacks as Hibs, with Boyle and Carmichael patrolling either flank, used every inch of the pitch to stretch their opponents who were defending with grim determination.

And, to make things worse for them was the sight of McGinn peeling off his tracksuit and replacing Dylan McGeouch to add further power to Hibs’ midfield. There was, however, a frustration as further goals simply refused to come. Chris Dagnall appeared to be caught in two minds as he was put through, hesitating momentarily with Henderson to his right before pushing a weak shot into the arms of Gallacher.

Liam Fontaine juggled with a Henderson corner and was only inches away with his parting effort and Henderson’s shot at the end of another sweeping move initiated by Keatings caught the wall of gold-and-black shirts in front of him.

And so it went on, Hibs pinning Alloa back as they desperately tried to prevent the floodgates opening. But their defence was breached for a third time, Dagnall’s low shot deflected into the path of Boyle, who knocked it home at the back post. Alloa were clearly beginning to wilt and Carmichael passed up a glorious chance to help himself to a second, the midfielder just failing to react in time as Boyle fizzed a low ball across goal.

A delighted Stubbs said: “The most important thing was getting the three points. It makes it even sweeter when the lads who have come in make such a big contribution to the game.

“What that tells me is that what I’ve said all along is right.

“I’ve got a core of maybe 19 or 20 players who could all play in the starting 11. Normally your first-team squad is of 13 or 14 players and the rest are there as squad players only. I can’t say that about this group, because they could all play in the team. Which is great.”