A RETURN to Alloa Athletic’s Indodrill Stadium, the scene of one of Hibs’ poorest performances of the season, was perhaps the ideal opportunity to assess the progress made by Alan Stubbs’ players.
That 2-1 defeat at the end of August, a third-successive Championship game lost, appeared to confirm that rather than be challenging for the title or at least one of the play-off spots, the Capital club was in danger of facing a fight at the wrong end of the table. However, as the pressure grew, Stubbs held his nerve, assuring a sceptical support that his way would, indeed, prove successful.
Today, he stands vindicated, Hibs having clocked up six away wins on the trot in a run which has seen them unbeaten over 90 minutes in their last 11 matches.
Although that slow start to the season may well have cost Hibs the chance to finish top of the pile and claim that one automatic promotion place, there is a new-found confidence in the team.
The gap of 16 points between them and Hearts may be seemingly unsurmountable but it will be intriguing to see if Hibs can, indeed, cut into it.
Alloa, though, have proved tricky opponents, drawing home and away with Rangers while coming within a couple of minutes of doing the same with Hearts in addition to their victory over Hibs, ensuring this Scottish Cup tie would prove something of a litmus test for Stubbs’ players.
But there’s no question that Stubbs’ side have become a force to be reckoned with over the course of the past three months, self-belief having surged through each and every one of the players, who are displaying a resilience, determination and grit which few, not so long ago, would have thought them capable of.
Setbacks are now brushed aside, any little wobble overcome rather than being allowed to become a crisis. So when goalkeeper Mark Oxley allowed Daryll Meggatt’s speculative shot to squirm through his hands and legs to give the part-timers a shock lead, there was no panic from Hibs – as there once might have been.
Oxley’s head coach and team-mates alike refused to berate the on-loan Hull City keeper, instead arguing that it was a rare error from a dependable colleague, who could rely on the other ten to spare his blushes.
“Mark apologised at half-time,” revealed Lewis Stevenson, “But that’s why you have a team and I thought the reaction after that goal was brilliant, we played our best spell for twenty minutes after that.”
Hibs had not done too badly before Meggatt’s moment either, Jason Cummings, Dominique Malonga, Danny Handling and Stevenson himself all having efforts not too far off target, but their response was almost instantaneous.
David Gray sent a header crashing off a post and another over before the outstretched arms of Mark Docherty blocked Scott Robertson’s shot, presenting Hibs captain Liam Craig with the opportunity to claim his first goal of the season, a curling free-kick which nestled neatly in the bottom corner of the net.
And it was a case of third-time lucky for Gray, the right-back meeting Scott Allan’s cross to send a looping header over Alloa goalkeeper Craig McDowall for what proved to be the winner just two minutes before half-time. Gray, along with midfielder Allan, has been one of the finds of the season, Stubbs admitting: “He has been outstanding for us. He’s a dream to manage, a warrior, a great pro. I’ve been impressed by him from day one, the type of player I want in my team.”
Stubbs would possibly have been disappointed his side didn’t go on to win more comfortably, the coach displaying signs of both appreciation for some passages of play but his exasperation as other moves broke down throughout the second half.
But Hibs, other than a shot sliced wide by Ryan McCord, did not find themselves under any sustained threat despite Alloa enjoying a decent percentage of possession, the second half’s big talking point being the red card shown to Malonga after he’d tangled with Wasps skipper Ben Gordon only two minutes from time, an incident missed by referee Bobby Madden but not by his assistant Stuart McMillan.
Having been advised Malonga had swung a punch, Madden was left with no alternative although others suggested the Congolese internationalist had aimed a kick at his opponent, an action which would have brought similar punishment.
Stubbs’ attention, like that of most watching, was on the ball which was at the other end of the park and television captured only the briefest of glimpses of what had happened. However, the replay appeared to uphold McMillan’s view that an arm had been raised.
Stubbs said: “If Dominique was out of order then he will be spoken to and it will be addressed. Dominique has gone to spin behind and the boy was all over him and if he has retaliated he should not have.”
Alloa had no time to make use of their numerical superiority and, while Wasps boss Barry Smith reflected that his side – so hit by injuries he was only able to name five substitutes – didn’t deserve to lose, after-match talk naturally turned to thoughts of Hibs finally ending their Scottish Cup hoodoo.
Stubbs’ response: ‘Everyone is entitled to dream’, was a view shared by Stevenson, a League Cup winner at the age of 19 but the holder of two runners-up medals in the Scottish. The left-back, though, insisted promotion remained the priority. “It’s early days, but you have to be in it to win it,” he said. “I’ve been to a few finals and know the heartache but this team is as good as any I have played in.
“Scott Allan is probably the most talented player I have played with for Hibs and we have the weapons that can cause a few upsets this year.
“Promotion is the priority but the cup still comes into your thinking. We are on a decent run. Our focus is on the league but everyone wants to go far in the cup. For Hibs it would be a massive thing if we could win it.”
Given Hibs’ history over the past 112 years, such a notion may seem fanciful but Stubbs insisted: “It’s nice to see the history but you can’t shy away from it when it’s not in your favour. You look at history when it goes well for you and I have said all along the one day it will change.”