Hibs promotion push gathers momentum

Dominique Malonga arrows the ball past Rovers keeper David McGurn for Hibs' third. Jason Cummings equalises, below.
Dominique Malonga arrows the ball past Rovers keeper David McGurn for Hibs' third. Jason Cummings equalises, below.
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It was a statistic which said it all about 2014 as far as Hibs were concerned.

Almost an entire calendar year without clocking up back-to-back league wins, a statistic which had left even boss Alan Stubbs shocked when brought to his attention.

Not since defeating Kilmarnock, Ross County and Hearts in short order last Christmas had the Easter Road outfit managed such a feat but now, having enjoyed successive victories, they can eye Saturday’s visit from Rangers as an opportunity to go one step further and make it three in a row for the first time in a year.

Of course, the Capital side are operating a level down at present but they’d no doubt point to the adage that you can only beat what’s put in front of you and, to that end, Stubbs’ side are accumulating some healthy statistics of their own.

Since beating Rangers at Ibrox at the end of September they’ve been beaten only once in 12 matches, bouncing back from losing a last-gasp goal at Falkirk with wins over Alloa Athletic and now Raith Rovers, giving further impetus to Stubbs’ assertion that they are building up a head of steam after a slow start to the season.

Both Alloa and Raith had taken points from Hibs during that rocky period but, as Stubbs has pointed out on more than one occasion, the men in green are an entirely different proposition now.

Perhaps back then Barrie McKay’s goal against the run of play would have been enough to send waves of self-doubt coursing through players and supporters alike but such moments are now fleeting. Within five minutes, Hibs were level, Dominique Malonga drilling a low shot across goal which Raith defender Rory McKeown could only knock into the path of Jason Cummings, who thumped it into the net on the stroke of half-time.

As Stubbs and his Stark’s Park counterpart Grant Murray acknowledged, it was an important time to score with the Raith manager musing that had his side held their lead until the interval the outcome of the game might have been different.

Certainly it would have left Hibs wondering, Stubbs’ players having virtually dominated the opening 45 minutes as they created chance after chance, Malonga, Cummings and Danny Handling having forced Raith goalkeeper David McGurn into a string of saves before McKay’s breakaway goal.

Stubbs said: “I was delighted for Jason because he’s had a few chances recently and hasn’t taken them and I think he’s been beating himself up. It was getting close to that point where he was trying too hard so the goal will be great for him.

“You’d like to have seen us take the opportunities we’d created but the most important thing for me is that we were getting into the right position and I always felt we were going to score.

“It was just a matter of time before we took one of them. It would have been very easy to get frustrated and think it wasn’t going to be our day but we have a really good bunch of lads and their belief at this moment in time is at a real high.

“I felt we went behind against the run of play but I knew they would come back and respond. It was important we got the equaliser so quickly, going in ahead at half-time would have given them a lift.”

Murray agreed, saying: “We lost a goal too early after going in front. It might have been a different outcome in the second half had we gone in ahead.”

Cummings’ goal, however, didn’t deflate Raith, their overall performance putting a question mark against why they’ve now lost their last four league games as they’ve dropped off the pace for a play-off spot although the fact Murray’s players have scored only two goals in that run may provide an answer.

Indeed, the ex-Hearts player was left wondering what might have happened had former Tynecastle striker Christian Nade not blazed a clear-cut chance over as the game stretched and became very much end-to-end. He’ll never know, Hibs taking advantage of a momentary lack of concentration in the home defence as Scott Allan and Malonga worked a short corner, the midfielder delivering an inviting cross for Liam Fontaine, pictured right, to power home a header.

Three minutes later, it was game over, another corner resulting in Paul Hanlon threading a superb pass through for Malonga to claim his 11th goal of the season. It was a goal which, at least momentarily, eased the pain from his throbbing right ankle, the price he’d paid for his part in Hibs’ equaliser.

The Congolese hitman said: “I was frustrated. I’d missed a couple of chances in the first half but thankfully it didn’t affect the outcome of the game. It was a tough game on a poor pitch and we were angry when they went ahead because we’d had opportunities to score.

“I felt I could have scored more goals but the important thing was the team won. We did that. I got a good goal so I am happy. My ankle was very, very sore but the goal eased the pain a little.”

There was an added bonus for Hibs as they discovered they’d crept into third place in the Championship table, ahead of Queen of the South on goal difference, after James Fowler’s side lost at home to Cowdenbeath.

Stubbs, though, underlined his focus being entirely on Hibs when he revealed he’d been unaware of the Doonhamers’ result.

He said: “I don’t really look at the results, we focus on ourselves because we believe if we keep playing the we are then we’ll be in the position we expect to be in come the end of the season.

“I’ve said that all along – it doesn’t make any difference what everyone else does. We just keep going along, tracking the teams above us, keep on their shoulders and see if we can surprise one or two.”