Hibs have already shown this season they can go toe-to-toe and slug it out with Hearts and Rangers, both seen as their biggest Championship rivals, not to mention Dundee United, who are enjoying the loftier realms of the Premiership.
In doing so, insisted head coach Alan Stubbs, his players had shed themselves of the accusation hurled at them as they struggled over the past couple of years that they were “soft”, lacking the mental toughness required.
However, while displaying an ability to match the toughest of opposition, question marks remained as to how the Capital club copes when faced with less high-profile fixtures, away trips to Alloa and Queen of the South springing to mind while in September’s clash with basement club Cowdenbeath they had to come from behind to win with a Jason Cummings strike deep into added-on time.
As such, a trip to the inhospitable surroundings of Central Park couldn’t be taken as a formality even if Stubbs’ players have hit a bit of form, unbeaten over 90 minutes in their previous seven matches.
The torrential rain which fell incessantly, soaking those brave souls who had travelled from Edinburgh to the bone as they stood out there on those open terraces, undoubtedly made life even more uncomfortable – as probably did the knowledge that the Blue Brazil had only been beaten three times on their tight little pitch in the league over the past ten months.
“It was a case of just getting the job done,” admitted midfielder Scott Allan after he and his team-mates had done just that, courtesy of a workmanlike, determined performance rather than the stylish displays they’d conjured up against Hearts and Dundee United.
Allan, unlike a number of his compatriots, had experienced the little Fife ground, probably more famous for the stock car race track which runs round the pitch than anything else. However, as alien as it perhaps felt Stubbs would have been delighted with the way his players adapted both to the surroundings, the smaller playing surface, the atrocious conditions and the loss of goalkeeper Mark Oxley to injury, which handed 19-year-old Kleton Perntreou an unexpected second-half debut.
The Albanian-born youngster took to the pitch, however, comforted by the fact Hibs were already leading 2-0 at that point, Paul Hanlon having stolen in behind a static defence to connect with Allan’s free-kick before Jason Cummings showed his instinctive predatory skills, drilling home a low shot after defender Nat Wedderburn could only partially clear David Gray’s cross.
His nerve and that of his team-mates was tested, though, when Jon Robertson rose to power home a header from Lewis Milne’s inviting cross with 27 minutes still remaining, a scenario which, in the past, has seen Hibs buckle and capitulate.
Not any more. Other than one save Perntreou enjoyed the sort of protection Stubbs as a former defender himself would have been hoping would be provided, Hanlon and Liam Fontaine along with Gray and Lewis Stevenson ensuring that everything which came into their penalty area quickly departed.
Hibs had their own opportunities to perhaps add a third goal which would have made life that bit easier but in the end, claimed skipper Liam Craig, they deserved their win. He said: “I think we made it difficult for ourselves.
“They scored a good goal from their point of view, a good ball into the box and a good header but I still thought we were in control. I can’t remember any real chance they had.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, we knew what to expect as we’d watched plenty of video clips. We knew how they were going to play and how we would go about trying to win the game and we were delighted to do so.”
A bulky dossier put together on the evidence of several spying missions on Cowdenbeath allied to training on a specially marked out pitch at East Mains to mirror the narrower Central Park surface underlined Stubbs’ attention to detail, but the Hibs boss admitted he was more than happy with the application and attitude of his players even if the performance was possibly not as pleasing on the eye as the displays against Hearts and United.
“It was a different kind of performance,” he agreed as he conducted his post match press conference – “al fresco” and in semi-darkness after the stadium lights were switched off, “I felt we put a performance in that was needed to win. We knew it was going to be difficult but we rolled our sleeves up and in the first half I thought we managed the game really well.”
Dismissing a question as to whether he felt this was a match Hibs could well have lost earlier in the season – as they appeared to be struggling to come to terms with the traumatic manner in which they’d been relegated – as “irrelevant,” Stubbs added: “I do think we have really turned the corner, that’s the most important thing.
“We have grown into the Championship knowing what it takes to win home and away and the boys will take a lot of confidence again from this result, it keeps us ticking along quite nicely.”
It was a result, though, which leaves Cowdenbeath firmly rooted to the foot of the table, Nicholl again left to express his frustrations. He said: “We never competed in the first half.
“We made it easy for them, we let good players play and you can’t afford to do that at this level. We let our opponents dictate the pace of the game.
“We weren’t anywhere near what I expected and I was really disappointed with them, the lack of concentration for the first goal and getting brushed off the ball too easily for the second.”