Teenage midfielder Fraser Murray enjoyed a dream debut for Hibs as he capped an impressive individual performance against Turriff United by scoring the goal that set his team on their way to the last 16 of the Irn-Bru Cup.
The 17-year-old was one of only two players in Neil Lennon’s much-changed starting XI who had no previous first-team experience. However, he didn’t look out of place in a three-man midfield alongside the established duo of Fraser Fyvie and Dylan McGeouch.
A fine finish from the youngster in the 18th minute broke the Highland League side’s resolve and paved the way for a comfortable victory in which Brian Graham and Martin Boyle also found the net.
After negotiating their trip to Aberdeenshire with minimum fuss, the squad now face the prospect of being handed another lengthy journey, with teams from Northern Ireland and Wales joining them in the fourth-round draw, which will be made tomorrow.
Having been knocked out of this competition at the first hurdle by Rangers in each of the previous two seasons, Hibs this time were given a more favourable opening match after being drawn against the lowest-ranked side left in the tournament. This meant Lennon was afforded the luxury of being able to utilise his fringe men, new signings and those working their way back towards fitness while giving some key players the day off.
Among those absent from the travelling party were John McGinn and Jason Cummings, who were both on international duty, as well as mainstays like Darren McGregor, David Gray, Marvin Bartley, Grant Holt, James Keatings and Lewis Stevenson, who had his testimonial dinner in the Capital on Saturday night.
The most prominent first-team players in the starting XI were new goalkeeper Ofir Marciano, Jordon Forster, Paul Hanlon, McGeouch, Fyvie, Graham, Alex Harris and Boyle as Lennon sent out a side he felt was still strong enough to avoid another cup upset after he was left riled by their Betfred Cup exit at the hands of Queen of the South last month.
This match may have featured relatively low on Hibs’ list of priorities when set against the importance of winning promotion from the Championship this season, but for Turriff United, it represented their biggest-ever match, according to manager Ross Jack. The presence of the BBC Alba television cameras at The Haughs helped add to the sense of occasion, with around 300 Hibs supporters making the long trek north, most of them clad in short sleeves on what was a pleasant afternoon weather-wise.
The travelling support were almost celebrating within the opening ten seconds when Turriff failed to deal with a long ball forward from Forster and Harris seized on the loose ball 20 yards out before flashing a powerful strike towards the top corner which home goalkeeper Kevin Main tipped on to the bar.
Hibs hit the woodwork for a second time in the third minute when Graham smacked a close-range volley against the bar after Boyle had headed into his path after meeting a cross from Scott Martin, the teenage midfielder who was deployed at right-back yesterday. Callum Crane, Hibs’ other debutant, then rasped a long-range strike over the bar as the visitors continued their strong start.
After a torrid opening five minutes, the hosts gradually started to gain a foothold and roused their supporters with a couple of forays forward which came to nothing.
However, Hibs made the breakthrough in the 18th minute in a moment that young Murray will cherish forever. Boyle fed the 17-year-old with a pass into the box and he kept his cool to slot a low angled shot beyond Main from 15 yards out. Boyle then saw a strike from the edge of the box punched out by Main before the visitors doubled their advantage in the 22nd minute when Graham glanced home a close-range header from McGeouch’s inswinging cross from the left.
With the wind removed from Turriff’s sails, Harris had a great chance to increase Hibs’ lead a minute later, but he smashed his shot wide after being set up by Boyle in a central position just inside the box.
Crane was proving to be a lively presence at left-back and he surged forward in the 28th minute but his shot was saved by Main. Graham then threatened with a couple of close-range headers from Crane crosses.
There was widespread hilarity around The Haughs in the 44th minute when Boyle’s wayward shot over the bar cannoned powerfully back off the forehead of a cameraman perched on a platform just above the Turriff goal.
Hibs started the second half the same way they began the first – with Harris hitting the bar. This time the winger sent a header against the woodwork after Forster had nodded the ball into his path.
Marciano was given his first notable test of the afternoon in the 51st minute when he had to act smartly to clutch a firm 20-yard shot from Turriff’s Polish striker, Andrzej Kleczkowski. Leszek Nowosielski, the other Pole in the home ranks, then curled a shot just beyond Marciano’s right-hand post from the edge of the box in the 63rd minute as Hibs looked to be taking their foot off the gas.
A Fyvie corner in the 74th minute gave Graham the chance to add his second of the afternoon but his first shot was charged down before he blazed the rebound over the bar.
The visitors added to their lead a minute later when Boyle shot home after being set up by Harris.
With Hibs cruising towards the fourth round, Lennon was able to hand Innes Murray, the 18-year-old midfielder who joined from Celtic on transfer deadline-day, his debut when he replaced McGeouch for the last four minutes.
Hibs: Marciano; Martin, Forster, Hanlon, Crane; F Murray, Fyvie, McGeouch; Harris, Graham, Boyle. Subs: Laidlaw, I Murray, O’Conner, Smith.