The presence of both Hearts and Rangers always meant Hibs were going to face a much tougher battle to recover their place in the top flight of Scottish football than the last time they faced such a predicament.
Considered by many as distant third favourites for the title before a ball was kicked, the Easter Road outfit may today even find that rating being reviewed having lost three of their four opening Championship matches – as many defeats as they suffered in cruising to the old First Division flag 15 years ago.
Of course, as everyone will point out, it’s still early days; another 32 fixtures and 96 points to be played for with Hibs very much a work in progress under new head coach Alan Stubbs following the collapse of last season which culminated in that totally unexpected relegation.
Straightening out the heads of those involved in that calamity is as important to Stubbs as integrating a clutch of new arrivals into his side while also implementing a different style of play, one based on possession and passing rather than the more direct route favoured by his predecessor Terry Butcher.
Losing had become a way of life for those players Stubbs inherited, their confidence fragile and in need of repair as the former Celtic and Everton defender has acknowledged on a number of occasions since he took charge.
Despite defeats outnumbering victories it did appear Stubbs had the Capital club moving in the right direction, the boss able to argue with some justification that his side hadn’t got what they deserved from their encounters with Rangers – the Petrofac Training Cup tie admittedly having no bearing on the primary target of promotion – Hearts and Falkirk.
On this occasion, though, there was no room for complaint as Stubbs readily conceded, a team which should have been buoyed by their remarkable League Cup comeback against Dumbarton a few days earlier ending up distinctly second best to Alloa.
It had looked all so promising when, after just 15 minutes, Hibs got the early lead they had craved in previous games, a goal as scrappy as their performance turned out to be.
Jason Cummings got his head onto Matty Kennedy’s near post cross, Alloa goalkeeper Craig McDowall managing to push the ball away but only on to team-mate Daryll Meggatt and then on into the net.
Cummings, naturally, claimed it for his own but it mattered little, Hibs were ahead and those who had travelled from Edinburgh no doubt fully expected their first visit to Recreation Park in 12 years to end in victory just as that League Cup encounter had thanks to goals from Garry O’Connor and Grant Brebner.
Instead, they’ll be able to recall Hibs’ first defeat in Clackmannanshire since 1922 when Alloa triumphed by the same 2-1 scoreline, the result, Stubbs agreed, of the poorest performance he’d seen from his side.
The reasons why standards dropped so dramatically weren’t readily identifiable but Stubbs refused to look for excuses such as the artificial surface or the rather alien environment in which his players found themselves; this game, perhaps significantly, being their first out of the more familiar surroundings of grounds such as Ibrox, Tynecastle and, of course, Easter Road.
A stand on one side, temporary seating under a “gazebo” type structure on the other and standing room only at one end isn’t what players from the Premiership are use to but with visits to the likes of Central Park and Dumbarton to come it’s something they’re going to have to learn to cope with.
“I’m not going to stand here and blame the pitch,” insisted Stubbs, who had taken his players to Spartans’ Ainslie Park complex to familiarise themselves with such a surface, “The ball is lively, it’s going to bobble and bounce higher.
“It’s different to what they are used to but it’s exactly the same for the opposition.”
Alloa, of course, have the benefit of training and playing on their pitch but while no great fan of “plastic” Stubbs would have expected the surface to suit his players and their preference for getting the ball down and passing it.
The loss of top scorer Farid El Alagui, stretchered off after landing awkwardly on his right ankle following an aerial challenge, disrupted Hibs but the long-term damage could be worse with Stubbs fearing a serious injury which, with the transfer window closing tonight, leaves him with only teenagers Cummings and Lewis Allan to support 32-year-old Paul Heffernan.
Stubbs felt his side lost their way after El Alagui’s departure but he’d be the first to agree they should have coped far better than they did, Jordon Forster twice coming up with timely blocks to ensure Hibs headed for the dressing-room at the interval still in front.
The warning signs had been there and within ten minutes of the restart Alloa were level, Mark Oxley, who’d produced two decent first half saves from the impressive Kevin Cawley and Ryan McCord, doing well to beat away Meggat’s close-range header only for Liam Buchanan to thump the rebound high into the net.
Forster smacked a sliding clearance off Oxley but his efforts proved in vain as Liam Fontaine clipped Cawley on the edge of the box, substitute Iain Flannigan firing a superb free-kick into the top corner with his first touch of the ball.
“Unacceptable,” was Forster’s assessment of his team’s efforts, the 20-year-old defender adding: “I don’t think we deserved anything from the game.
“We were not good enough, we were second to every ball. They looked hungrier than us and that’s unacceptable at any club and especially a club like Hibs.
“It was very disappointing, but we only have ourselves to blame.”
And Forster rejected any suggestion of complacency in Hibs ranks. He said: “We came into this game knowing how hard it was going to be, taking everything into consideration, the pitch and the fact Alloa are decent side who move the ball well.
“You can always have an off day and I think this was one of them.” Forster agreed, though, that Hibs can’t afford many such days in a league where every point, and possibly every goal, will be vital.
The Easter Road side already trailing leaders Hearts, with their 100 per cent record, by nine points. He said: “Last season we were the underdogs in most games, which can make it easier to play, but this season ourselves, Rangers and Hearts are the bigger teams. Clubs up their game and we were unable to deal with it.”