Hibs’ victory means it is game on in title race

Paul Hanlon celebrates in front of the Famous Five Stand after heading in John McGinn's corner. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Paul Hanlon celebrates in front of the Famous Five Stand after heading in John McGinn's corner. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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If this was a match Hibs had to win to keep their Championship title hopes alive then it’s now certainly game on, Alan Stubbs’ side having slashed leaders Rangers’ advantage to just five points.

Defeat would have seen the Ibrox club’s 11 point lead restored, a situation Stubbs had refused to contemplate in the days leading up to this encounter, the Easter Road head coach repeatedly stating his conviction that his players were more than capable of victory.

Those utterances were no doubt met in some quarters with the cynical response of “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he,” but ultimately Stubbs’ unshakeable belief in his players was totally vindicated.

But as delighted as he was, Stubbs’ immediate reaction was to heap praise on those who wear the green and white, insisting: “My job is simple, I have good players. I set them up to play a certain way in certain games and they go out to carry it out to the best of their ability.”

That much has been evident in recent weeks, a run of victories over the likes of Queen of the South, Falkirk and Raith Rovers ensuring this much anticipated showdown with the until now all-conquering Glasgow outfit was a high-stakes affair.

Often when so much is riding on a game the event itself can prove to be something of an anti-climax. Not this time with both Hibs and Rangers serving up a pulsating 90 minutes of non-stop action, plenty of goalmouth chances, near things and, of course, goals.

From the first minute to the last the game swung one way and the other, Rangers certain they had a “nailed on penalty” within the opening couple of minutes as Lewis Stevenson appeared to clip the heels of ex-Hearts midfielder Jason Holt.

Nothing doing as far as referee John Beaton was concerned, Hibs making the most of that let-off as Jason Cummings took skipper David Gray’s throw-in, turned Gers defender Danny Wilson and dispatched a trademark screamer past goalkeeper Wes Foderingham from 25 yards.

It was his 11th of the season or 35th in just 66 appearances for Hibs, statistics which have, naturally, attracted attention up and down the country, Rotherham boss Neil Redfearn sending, as promised, his chief scout Gee Evans to Edinburgh although he wasn’t alone with Huddersfield, Bolton and Burnley among others with representatives to see the irrepressible hitman make it five in five.

Hibs held that lead until just two minutes into the second half, Lee Wallace’s low shot taking a wicked deflection off the heel of former team-mate Darren McGregor and beyond Mark Oxley, a signal for a Rangers onslaught which saw the ex-Hearts man hit the bar as Oxley’s great save from Martyn Waghorn fell at his feet and substitute Nathan Oduwa also hit the post.

But Hibs, too, had their moments, a sumptuous 60-yard pass from man-of-the-match John McGinn dropping over the head of Rangers defender Rob Kiernan to leave Cummings with only Foderingham to beat, which he could not do.

The Edinburgh club, though, weren’t to be denied, Paul Hanlon turning James Tavernier to power in and meet McGinn’s corner, his header his first goal of the season and enough to stretch Hibs’ unbeaten run to 11 matches.

Warburton, who made a rare change to his formation, was convinced there had only been one team in it during that tempestuous second period, an opinion to which Stubbs agreed he was entitled, before adding: “We have won a game of football. Look at the chances we have had in the game, we had opportunities to stretch the lead.

“I might not show it, but I am delighted inside. Delighted for the players as I always am when we win. They deserve all the credit in the world for the result. They stood up, every one of them but I think both teams deserve a lot of credit. I thought it was a great game, chances at both ends and we have managed to come out on top.”

This was, once again, another indication of the difference between the Hibs of last season and this time round, a match in which having lost the lead they might well have lost all together. Stubbs said: “When we had to dig in we dug in. We were organised, frustrated them but created some great chances.

“We have a good blend, defensively we are strong.”

Stubbs believes Hibs have become a stronger team without Scott Allan, “a great individual” who moved on to Celtic despite Rangers’ pursuit, saying: “Rangers have all the plaudits and rightly so. They have had a fantastic start but we are only five points behind them so we must have done something right.”

Asked if he felt Hibs can continue to close the gap, Stubbs replied: “Whether we can is a question I can’t answer just yet but we are going to have a good go at it. Rangers are a really good team, they have done well but we have narrowed the gap.

“I have said all along we have a really talented bunch of lads. It’s all about performances because when you have that quality if they perform you have a very good chance of winning the game.

“We have had to do it differently at times, that’s what you have to do. You cannot always have it your own way as we saw against Rangers – we didn’t have it our own way but we have won.”

And if Stubbs can’t look into a crystal ball and predict what might happen over the coming months he was, at least certain of one thing. When asked would a Rangers win have seen the Ibrox club put one hand on the championship trophy, he replied: “I have never seen a team win the title in November in any league in the world. So had we been beaten it beggars belief to think a team could win the title in November. If I was Rangers I would like to have been 11 points clear but they are not. Nothing is won until mathematically you have won it.”