Just over three months ago, following a 1-0 defeat at Falkirk, Hibs languished in fourth place in the Scottish Championship, ten points adrift of second-placed Rangers.
Remarkably, Alan Stubbs’ buoyant team are guaranteed to be ahead of the Ibrox side even if they lose this Sunday’s Easter Road showdown between the sides after a routine victory at Cowdenbeath left them seven points clear of the embattled Glasgow outfit.
Rangers can claw the deficit to four points if they win the first of their two games in hand, at home to Alloa, tomorrow night. However, the fact Hibs are now in command of the battle for second owes as much to their own consistency as it does to their rivals’ dismal form over the past few months.
The Easter Road side have been a resurgent force over the past six months, although an 11-game unbeaten run, sparked by a 2-0 League Cup victory at Ross County in late September, was pock-marked by frustrating home draws which looked like costing them any chance of finishing second. It is only since that defeat at Falkirk, however, that Hibs have taken their promotion push to a new level with a 15-game unbeaten run, in all competitions, incorporating 12 victories.
Underlining the renewed ruthlessness in Stubbs’ burgeoning team, Saturday’s triumph was their seventh in a row since losing a late equaliser at home to Raith Rovers and their 11th in 13 away matches.
“A lot of people had written us off earlier in the season, but for us to keep plodding away and collectively do really well, it sums up the boys in the dressing-room,” said talismanic midfielder Scott Allan. “Everybody can see we’re all running that extra mile for each other and it’s all clicking into place. We were playing some really good football earlier in the season without picking up the results we deserved but now it’s all about getting wins and that’s what we’re doing week in, week out.”
Saturday’s win wasn’t Hibs’ most swashbuckling of the season, but head coach Stubbs described it as one of their “most professional”. The Easter Road side found a way of mastering a wretched playing surface, which Rangers had toiled badly on the previous weekend, and set about stifling the life out of Cowdenbeath for most of the match. It was a game of few clear chances, but Hibs were always in control. Ultimately, first-half goals from Fraser Fyvie and Jason Cummings – one sublime and the other bizarre – within the space of two minutes were enough to secure the points as Hibs cruised through the remainder of the match without ever really looking like scoring or conceding.
“Other teams have come here and struggled with the conditions and the park, but I thought every boy in the team was brilliant,” said Allan. “We dominated play early doors but we had to be patient. When the goal came, that settled us down and we were really comfortable and never really looked like conceding.”
Stubbs had made three changes to the side that beat Livingston 2-1 last Wednesday, with David Gray, Allan and Dylan McGeouch restored to the starting XI and Paul Hanlon, Liam Craig and Martin Boyle dropping to the bench. It was two of those returnees who combined to magnificent effect to help turn Hibs’ early control into a tangible advantage after 32 minutes.
Allan picked the ball up just inside his own half and played a lovely pass into the right channel for Gray who galloped up the flank to get on the end of it and in behind the home defence. Instead of drilling hurriedly across goal, the right-back kept his cool and cut it back perfectly for Fyvie, who arrived on the edge of the box to plant a low shot past Robbie Thomson for his first Hibs goal.
Allan insists his exquisite pass would have counted for nothing if he hadn’t had such willing team-mates around him, eager to capitalise. “I can’t play the pass if Dave doesn’t make the run, but he’s done that several times this season which makes it easier for me,” said the midfielder. “He showed the composure to cut it back to Fraser. The goal came because we had two guys making lung-bursting runs and getting on the end of things.”
If that wasn’t already game over, the points were all but assured less than two minutes later when Cowdenbeath, renowned for imploding this season, shot themselves in the foot, as manager Jimmy Nicholl put it. Colin Marshall, seemingly unaware that Cummings was lurking dangerously, played a long and ill-judged passback to Thomson. As the keeper, stricken by indecision, got himself in a horrid fankle, Cummings nipped in to get the slightest touch and help it trundle over the line.
As scrappy as it was, it took the teenager two goals clear of Queen of the South pair Derek Lyle and Gavin Reilly at the top of the Championship scoring charts. “I think he was playing hide and seek,” said Stubbs. “We’ll take it though.”
This was to be the little striker’s last notable involvement in the match. After attempting a clearance from his own half late in the first half, he crumpled to the ground holding his knee before eventually being replaced by Boyle at the interval.
With the game already won, the second half was an exercise in professionalism for the Edinburgh side as they kept the ball as well as could be expected on the patchy surface and minimised the threat from a Cowdenbeath side who refused to throw in the towel. The scoreline only really looked like altering in the last ten minutes, when Fyvie and Scott Robertson both went close to increasing Hibs’ lead.
A minor blemish for the visitors came with five minutes left when Allan was yellow-carded for volleying the ball high into the terracing behind the goal after his side had failed to capitalise on an attack. It took him within one league booking of a suspension. “I was frustrated because I’d made a long run and didn’t get on the end of it,” said Allan. “It was just silly, really.”
Not that anything currently looks like stopping this relentless Hibs surge.