It spoke volumes for how well Hibs played in last night’s enthralling League Cup quarter-final that, despite the deflation of losing on penalties to Dundee United, their proud supporters stayed behind at the end to cheer them off the park.
The Easter Road faithful have had to stomach plenty of stale fare in recent times, but they were served up the sort of fearless, swashbuckling, attacking football they’d been craving for so long as their team gave the high-flying Tannadice side an almighty scare.
Alan Stubbs had waxed lyrical about Hibs’ performance in the 1-1 draw with Championship leaders Hearts on Sunday, which extended their unbeaten run to six games in all competitions. The head coach mused ahead of last night’s match that his side would probably have to play even better than they had against their city rivals if they were to beat United, who sit third in the Premiership. Although they ultimately came up short in a dramatic shoot-out, Stubbs got his wish with regard to the performance, certainly in an attacking capacity.
While Sunday’s derby was a relatively cagey affair, last night’s quarter-final was a joy to watch for both sets of supporters as two rampant attacking outfits went at each other in one of the most entertaining matches Scottish football will see all season. “We’ve just gone toe-to-toe with probably the best attacking team in Scotland and we’ve matched them,” said Stubbs. “We could have easily won the game, although I’m sure Jackie McNamara could say the same as well. It was a really entertaining game of football between two teams trying to win.”
While any kind of defeat for Hibs of late has tended to invite an air of gloom over the club, things are different at the moment. “Even though we lost, I feel like we’ve won,” said Stubbs, who for the second time in four days was cock-a-hoop with his players’ performance despite suffering late heartbreak in both games.
The manager has good reason for his sunny demeanour, though. In Hibs’ last seven games, they have won away at Premiership side Ross County, won away at pre-season Championship favourites Rangers, swatted Livingston aside at Almondvale, come within a couple of minutes of defeating unbeaten Championship leaders Hearts and now been within a penalty kick of knocking one of the best teams in the country out of the League Cup.
Home draws against Raith Rovers and Dumbarton earlier this month may have taken the gloss of their undefeated sequence, but the last three displays in particular, against Livi, Hearts and United, suggest that this Hibs side is genuinely heading in the right direction. “They’re getting better and they’ll get even better still – I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing,” said Stubbs.
Hibs have been particularly strong in midfield recently and that trend continued last night. They were without Dylan McGeouch, the man of the match from Sunday’s derby, through suspension, which paved the way for Liam Craig to return to the side. The captain has toiled to win over the Hibs support since skippering the team to relegation last season, but last night he showed his worth with an energetic display alongside the magnificent former Dundee United pair Scott Allan and Scott Robertson. Despite being roundly booed by the 2000 travelling fans every time he touched the ball following his acrimonious exit from Tannadice in 2012, Allan, the elegant 22-year-old, further endeared himself to the Hibs support with his third high-quality performance in as many games. Robertson also appears to have rediscovered his mojo and was excellent again.
On an evening when defenders on both sides failed to cover themselves in glory, Hibs’ midfield trio paved the way for their side to flourish to such entertaining effect. After a strong start from the hosts, in which Robertson hooked a shot over from an Allan cross, it was United who went ahead after 12 minutes when Chris Erskine picked up possession 35 yards out, slipped the ball past Liam Fontaine all too easily and then slotted clinically beyond Mark Oxley from the edge of the box. This was the first time Hibs had fallen behind since the 1-0 defeat at Queen of the South in mid-September, but they responded admirably to level within four minutes. Allan threaded a lovely pass through to Dominique Malonga, who burst into the left side of the penalty area and planted a firm angled shot past Radoslaw Cierzniak. It was the languid but effective Congolese striker’s sixth goal in nine games for Hibs.
United restored their lead in the 18th minute. John Rankin’s through pass released Ryan Dow, who drew Oxley from his goal, found a way past him and squared to Aidan Connolly. With the goal at his mercy, the young attacker, making his first start for United, forced the ball home with the aid of Hibs defender Lewis Stevenson, who had rushed back to try and clear the danger.
In a breathless, end-to-end final few minutes of the first half, Craig saw a free-kick tipped away by Cierzniak, Dow had a strong penalty claim turned away after he fell under a challenge from Robertson, Jason Cummings thumped an angled shot narrowly wide and Erskine’s goal-bound effort was deflected behind following some frantic Hibs defending.
Stubbs had a few choice words at the interval over some aspects of his team’s play and he got a positive response in the second half as they went on to dominate United for long periods. After a strong start to the second half, the hosts deservedly equalised in 57 minutes when Stevenson, who is fast becoming Hibs’ king of assists, sent over a pinpoint cross from the left which the unmarked Cummings gleefully nodded home for his fifth goal of the season.
Yet again, though, Hibs were unable to remain level for long. In 61 minutes, Paul Hanlon got his team in a fankle with a short back-header to Oxley and eventually the defender scrambled an Erskine shot behind for a corner. It was to prove costly as Blair Spittal sent in an inswinging delivery which was headed over the line by Dow. Hibs weren’t finished, though, and they equalised for a third time in 78 minutes as Matt Kennedy, who had replaced Danny Handling ten minutes earlier, unleashed a powerful shot from 25 yards out which took a nick off Rankin and looped beyond Cierzniak and into the net.
With the game now wide open, it could easily have gone either way. Such was the sense of excitement in the ground, thought, most present were pretty happy when it remained deadlocked at full-time, guaranteeing an extra 30 minutes. The tempo, understandably, dropped in extra time, with United enjoying the bulk of the possession but unable to create many clear openings.
Penalties it was, and for a while it looked like even the shoot-out wasn’t going to separate the sides. Both teams netted their first six kicks, with Erskine, John Souttar, Stuart Armstrong, Dow, Nadir Ciftci and Spittal scoring for United and Allan, Craig, Hanlon, Alex Harris, Malonga and Sam Stanton responding for Hibs.
Then the semi-finals zoomed into view for the Easter Road side when former Hibee Rankin skied his kick. It left Kennedy with the chance to win the tie, but his effort was saved by Cierzniak. United took full advantage of their reprieve. Conor Townsend scored to make it 7-6 and David Gray, who had been excellent at right-back all night, was unable to do likewise as his powerful kick was pushed over by the firm-handed Cierzniak. The Hibs players slumped in dejection, but they were soon roused by loud chants of “Hibees, Hibees” from their supporters.
It’s been several years since a Hibs manager has been able to use the word “swagger” in relation to his team, but Stubbs did last night and he was entirely justified. Crucially, the fans, even in defeat, seemed to agree.