KIERAN STEWART caused more than a few palpitations among the Hibs support as he lashed the ball high beyond goalkeeper Mark Oxley to give Arbroath a shock lead, the thought of crashing out of the Scottish Cup to a League Two side sending a shiver down the spine.
A disallowed goal, Franck Dja Djedje having been judged to have lifted his boot a little too high as he and the Red Lichties goalkeeper Marc McCallum raced for a through ball, and the sight of Scott Allan crashing a vicious shot off the woodwork, only nurtured the notion that an embarrassing upset might be on the cards.
But as hearts remained in mouths, that of Alan Stubbs didn’t miss a beat, the head coach perfectly calm in the eye of the storm, his faith in his players intact, his belief that it would be Hibs in today’s quarter-final draw rather than Arbroath unshakeable.
“We had to make sure we didn’t panic,” he insisted after the 3-1 win at Easter Road. “That we kept trusting ourselves to do the right things more often than not, and I think that eventually paid off for us.”
Dja Djedje’s first goal for the club, the Ivory Coast striker sweeping home David Gray’s cutback after Scott Allan’s vision had given the overlapping right-back the space to do so, three minutes from the interval was perfectly timed, easing the nerves of players and fans alike while taking some of the wind out of their opponents’ sails.
“We scored at an important time,” conceded Stubbs, “That settled everyone down and then it was just a matter of enforcing the fact that we needed to keep passing the ball, to do it a little bit quicker than we had in parts of the game and if we kept doing that then we would get opportunities and that proved to be the case.”
A Jason Cummings shot which took a wicked deflection off on-loan Hearts kid Liam Gordon put Hibs in front and substitute Dylan McGeouch – he started from the bench having picked up a slight hamstring problem against Raith Rovers seven days earlier – wrapped things up with a clinical finish following a 40-yard run.
Hibs could easily have doubled their tally and Cummings might have had a hat-trick, the teenager firing one shot straight at McCallum before dinking the ball over the goalkeeper but wide of the target, the Arbroath No 1 ensuring the youngster ended the game without even one goal as he threw himself acrobatically across his line to turn another effort over.
While it might have been a comfortable win in the end Arbroath, top of their league, deserved huge credit. They made their intentions clear by playing two up front – Simon Murray, son of former Hibs forward Gary, and Paul McManus, who have 37 goals between them this season.
It was a refreshing approach given the way a number of Championship sides have come to the Capital intent only on sitting in and hoping to escape with a point which, from Hibs’ perspective, too many have succeeded in doing.
It was appreciated not only by the Hibs fans who applauded Allan Moore’s players from the pitch, but Stubbs who stood at the tunnel to shake every one of them by the hand.
He said: “They came and tried to have a good go and I commend them for that. They played two up, matched us up with the diamond in midfield and on the break they looked a threat.”
While making progress in the competition was, of course, the only objective, there were added bonuses for Stubbs, who had gone into this match without the suspended Dominique Malonga and the cup-tied Martin Boyle and Keith Watson, in the fact Gray, returning from a groin operation, Dja Djedje and latest signing Fraser Fyvie all got 90 minutes of competitive action ahead of Friday night’s crucial Championship clash with Rangers at Ibrox.
Gray, who scored in each of Hibs’ league victories over the troubled Glasgow outfit, insisted his return less than a month after surgery was bang on schedule, and said: “I was always keen to push to get back as soon as I could.
“It’s credit to the physios and the strength and conditioning coaches at the club, they have done a lot of really good work on me. Getting into the next round of the cup was the most important thing, but on a personal level it was good to get 90 minutes.”
Gray agreed he has returned to find Stubbs’ squad much stronger than even a month ago, the January transfer window having seen Dja Djedje, Boyle, Watson, Fyvie and goalkeeper Tomas Cerny all added to the ranks, while Malonga has returned from international action with Congo at the African Cup of Nations and Farid El Alagui is inching closer to full fitness after rupturing his achilles tendon at the end of August.
He said: “Friday is a massive game, a great one to play in. Confidence is great and we have a really strong squad and we’ll be going there looking to keep the momentum going and hope to push on for the rest of the season.”
Stubbs was naturally delighted with the performances of Dja Djedje, Gray and Fyvie, pointing out that all three will benefit from having played a full game.
He said: “Franck was behind everyone fitness-wise but he had 45 minutes during the week, 90 minutes in this game and he will get better and better with each game. It’s the same with Fraser. He has had a few games, but not at that level so what I saw was very pleasing. He can be happy with his first 90 minutes in a Hibs shirt.
“It’s always good when you have your top players coming back and David comes into that bracket. He has been fantastic for us all season and even although he did not necessarily have the same impact he has had all season, the most important thing is he has come through the game and will benefit from those minutes on the pitch.”