Every cloud has a silver lining and amid the doom and gloom which gripped Hibs fans following defeat by Capital rivals Hearts, former Easter Road star Kevin Harper could detect plenty of reasons for optimism.
As a co-commentator for the club’s own television station, Harper has been at all three of the Edinburgh outfit’s matches so far and admits he’s been pleasantly surprised at what he has seen as new head coach Alan Stubbs reshapes his squad and the team’s style of play.
Even though the opening games haven’t quite brought the rewards Stubbs feels his players’ efforts have deserved, Harper firmly believes that in the coming weeks and months they most certainly will, particularly if the team begins to create the number of chances the possession they’ve enjoyed in each of those fixtures merits.
Pointing out that it is still very early days in the transition Stubbs has begun, Harper revealed the biggest surprise he’s noticed has been the obvious confidence shown by players who had been plunged into the deepest depths of despair only a few short weeks ago as a calamitous season culminated in a relegation which appeared unthinkable at the turn of the year.
“Looking at the back end of last season the players, especially the young kids, must have been distraught, on a real low,” he said. “They weren’t able to express themselves with the ball just being lumped up the pitch, but the new manager has come in, changed the mindset and the style of play, getting the ball down on the deck and passing it.
“I think he has done a fantastic job to get the players where they are. Maybe some of the younger ones aren’t quite there yet, but they are getting there. I can certainly see that and so will the manager.
“Alan looks like a calming figure. He’ll want to play his way win, lose or draw and that’s the mentality he’ll be trying to get into the players, I think he will be relatively happy with the start he’s made in his first managerial job, one which has involved a huge amount of work behind the scenes of getting the players minds changed from where they were at the end of last season to now.
“There will be things he’s not happy about, but you have to remember it’s very much a work in progress and I’d expect him to probably bring in another couple of players between now and the transfer window closing and for Hibs to continue improving as Stubbs squad knits together and gains a better understanding of how he wants them to play.”
Harper believes Stubbs’ influence was there for all to see from the opening quarter-of-an-hour of his first game, the Petrofac Training Cup tie against Rangers at Ibrox in which Hibs went down to an early goal from Lewis Macleod.
He said: “You’ve seen it over the years, teams go to places like Ibrox and Celtic Park, lose an early goal and suddenly find themselves two, three and four behind. Every team has those wobbly spells, but Hibs didn’t fold. They kept going, got themselves back into the game and had it not been for Danny Handling’s red card I’d have fancied them to have gone on to win it, as they were very much on top up to that point.
“Against Livingston they totally dominated the first half, handed Livingston the initiative, but held firm for the win. And again on Sunday they impressed in the first half, had the confidence to knock the ball about and quietened the home fans. I think Liam Craig’s penalty miss buoyed Hearts, but even then it looked as if it had 0-0 all over it until Hibs were undone by a wonderful piece of skill from Sam Nicholson and then giving away a rather needless penalty.”
While delighted with the positive play he has seen from Hibs, Harper conceded there were also negatives to contemplate, his main gripe being how few clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities Stubbs’ side have created.
He continued: “I’ve been impressed with the shape of the team, the way they have passed the ball, but my only concern is the lack of chances in relation to the amount of the ball Hibs have had.
“For me, when you are on top in games, you’d normally create three or four clear chances, maybe three half-chances, so I don’t think Hibs are creating enough. Against Livingston, despite the fact they’d dominated the first half, the two goals came from a set-piece and that freak effort from Mark Oxley.
“And against Hearts, the penalty aside, there wasn’t much in the way of chances although, to be fair Hearts, didn’t really have any either. I can only recall one smart save from either goalkeeper who otherwise only had a few crosses to deal with. El Alagui’s finish was a great bit of skill, but I’d have liked to have seen the wide men get at their opponents a lot more and get the ball into the box from the flanks.
“Having said that, however, I’m convinced that if Hibs continue to enjoy as much of the ball then the goal-scoring opportunities will come.”
Expecting all the wrongs of last season to be righted in such a short space of time is totally unrealistic and to that end Harper believes the Hibs support, while hurting from yet another derby defeat, appreciate the strides forward being taken under Stubbs.
He said: “Losing a derby is always hard to take. It’s not nice having your rivals enjoy the bragging rights, but as tough as it is, you don’t get 21 points for winning a derby, just three. That’s the reality of it.
“And from what I am seeing, the fans are behind the team. Last season if they’d gone two down the place would have emptied, but on Sunday the majority stayed to the end backing the team. That’s a sign they understand things are changing.
“I’ve been at all three games in my new role with Hibs TV – it’s great to be involved again at the club even in a small way – and I’ve enjoyed what I have seen. I don’t think there’s anything to fear, it’s early days in the transition which is taking place and Hibs, I am sure, will only get stronger as they season goes on.”