It had been a long time coming, but it made the moment all the sweeter for Hibs star Lewis Stevenson as he finally savoured a victory over Ross County – at the seventh attempt.
As the sole survivor from the Capital club’s first trip to Dingwall coming on four years ago, there was little wonder Stevenson possibly took a tad more satisfaction from the latest foray north than his team-mates.
Way back then, Hibs had been shocked by what was then a First Division side, the Staggies knocking Hibs out of the 2010 Scottish Cup at the quarter-final stage with a 2-1 win in Dingwall after a 2-2 draw at Easter Road.
Since then, County have regularly left Hibs licking their wounds both home and away, a couple of no-scoring draws the best the Edinburgh club had to show – until now.
Gritty rather than silky was boss Terry Butcher’s assessment of a match which had provided Hibs with a tricky hurdle to negotiate as they began their bid to reach a third successive Scottish Cup final and, given both clubs had struggled for results in the preceding weeks, it was no surprise that the one moment of quality – Danny Handling’s 31st-minute strike – was enough to separate the sides.
It not only provided Hibs and their 1083-strong travelling support with something to celebrate, but, equally surprisingly, it was also a first win in Dingwall for Butcher, formerly manager of their near neighbours Inverness Caley Thistle.
“We’d gone up there in a positive frame of mind and I think it showed,” insisted Stevenson, despite that miserable record. “Ross County had become something of a bogey team for us since that bad night when they put us out of the cup. We’d struggled a bit both home and away against them, so it was good to get that monkey, so to speak, off our backs.
“We didn’t have a good record against them, but records are there to be broken and that’s now gone. A win against them was a long time coming, but the wait made it that little bit sweeter. We’re back up there on Boxing Day, so hopefully we can do it again.
“It wasn’t pretty at times, but I thought we did all right and scoring first was important as we’ve gone behind a number of times this season and that makes it very difficult when games in the Scottish Premiership are so tight. It was a tough game which could have gone either way, but it was a great goal from Danny. I thought both he and James Collins gave their defence a lot of trouble throughout the match.”
The victory also added to the buzz of positivity surrounding Butcher’s arrival, building on the no-scoring draw away to St Mirren in his first game and creating a heightened sense of anticipation ahead of his first home match against Partick Thistle this weekend, with Stevenson and his team-mates re-energised by the change in management.
The little midfielder said: “We seem to be working a lot harder. Teams seemed to enjoy playing against us, but now we want to make sure they don’t enjoy coming up against us. I think we have done that in the last couple of games, but we also know there is still a lot of work to be done. It’s been a positive start, unbeaten, two clean sheets and into the last 16 of the cup, so we are happy enough. We are playing higher up the pitch, trying to play in the opposition’s half and I think as the boys understand more of what the gaffer wants us to do, we’ll be creating more chances in games.”
As the club’s longest serving player – he made his debut under Tony Mowbray at the age of 17 in 2005 and the visit of Partick on Saturday will mark his 200th game in a Hibs shirt – Stevenson has seen plenty of managers come and go. John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes, Colin Calderwood and Pat Fenlon have all managed Stevenson and thus he knows well the upheaval change can bring.
He said: “I think there’s always that wee thought ‘Will he fancy me or no’, but everyone starts with a clean slate. The first few days in training are hectic with everyone trying to prove themselves, but, bar Paul Heffernan, who is injured, the gaffer has kept the same team for his first two games.
“Those of us in the team at the moment are happy, while also aware we have a lot of quality in the squad and that we have to be on our toes because there are others desperate to take your place.”
Fielding players in their natural positions has also helped. Liam Craig and Scott Robertson have moved into central midfield rather than being deployed on the flanks as they were under Fenlon, while Stevenson himself has reverted to the left side rather than, admittedly out of necessity, playing at right back.
“I think everyone feels more comfortable,” he agreed, “but there is also that togetherness we’ve shown already this season. I think it showed when Paul Cairney was sent off and we went down to ten men. We all think he was a bit unlucky. He’d made a great run and I don’t know why he would go down. It was the ref’s decision and you have to accept it and get on with things, but it does make it difficult going down to ten men at time when the boys are perhaps beginning to tire a little because of the tempo we were playing at. We showed great fitness levels and the fact they also lost a player to injury having used all their subs was a wee break for us.”
Having made the final in each of the previous two seasons, there will be those dreaming of yet another big day out come May, but Stevenson insisted nothing could be further from his mind, citing Albion Rovers’ shock win over Motherwell. He said: “Anything can happen in the cup. It’s good to have got through and we seem to have a happy knack in such games having now won nine out of our last 11 ties. We had some tough games last year and the season before. We’ve shown we can dig in and get a result, but we’ll be taking it a game at a time.”