Revamped Hibs squad succeed at third time of asking to become SPL leaders, just for one day

Eoin Doyle shows his delight after his opener
Eoin Doyle shows his delight after his opener
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Only Paul Hanlon and David Wotherspoon of the current Hibs side can claim to have been at Easter Road any longer than nine months, but already their new team-mates appear to have embraced Leith’s motto: 
Persevere.

Having twice passed up the opportunity to go top of the SPL table, failing as they surrendered a two-goal lead against Inverness Caledonian Thistle and then seeing their six match unbeaten run brought to an end 
by Aberdeen, Pat Fenlon’s men got there in the end with what, ultimately, proved to be a comfortable victory over basement outfit Dundee.

Their stay at the summit may have been somewhat fleeting and few, even within Easter Road, would expect to see any team other than Celtic occupying the No. 1 spot at the end of the season but, nevertheless, this was a significant day for a club which finished one from bottom last time round.

Not only did it elevate them to the dizzy height of first place, it was their third win at home – where they remain unbeaten so far – after managing just two SPL victories in the whole of last season while there was also a sign the team’s exploits are meeting the approval of their supporters with the crowd nudging into five figures for only the second time.

As everyone connected with the club would admit, not least Fenlon and his players, it’s still too early to be shouting from the rooftops as to just what might be achieved but, as both Eoin 
Doyle, who opened the scoring with a towering header, and Ryan McGivern insisted, after having just about completed the first round of fixtures, there’s not too much for them to fear.

Doyle, Fenlon’s first signing in what has turned out to be a dramatic overhaul of the squad the Irishman inherited from Colin Calderwood, admitted the home dressing-room is a much changed place than when he first entered it back in January when Hibs found themselves embroiled in a desperate battle to stave off the threat of relegation.

Agreeing with Fenlon he was “oozing with confidence” having scored for the third game in succession, the former Sligo Rovers hitman said: “It’s not just me, I think everyone out there is very confident at the moment. We slipped up against Aberdeen but we had the chance to put it right and make a statement that we are a team which is going to be pushing this season.

“The gaffer himself has said the dressing-room is a different animal, I think we have better characters in there fighting for each other. We also have a lot of steel in the team with the likes of Gary [Deegan] and James [McPake].”

The inevitable question, of course, was that having hit the top could Hibs remain there or thereabouts? Doyle said: “It’s still early but I think it’s important to be up there, fighting up there. This is a big club that over the last few years was very much under-achieving.

“All teams will be judged at the end of the season and I will be very surprised myself if Celtic do not win it to be honest. But we will keep fighting, pushing ourselves to get as high up as possible. We’ve played the majority of the teams now and we have done reasonably well. There’s nothing there that really frightens us. We’ve been to Parkhead and got a good result which is a big plus and gives you great confidence knowing you can do it.”

Doyle acknowledged the Hibs support seem, slowly but surely, to be buying into Fenlon’s revolution, many having remained sceptical for fear of yet another false dawn, the flame-haired striker saying: “We need to win them back over from last season while even the first game of this season [a 3-0 defeat away to Dundee United] was terrible as well.

“I think we are starting to do that, they are behind us and that’s helping – you hear them in the last ten minutes and it helped us get through with a clean sheet and the three points.”

Those self-same fans, however, were just starting to get slightly anxious as Hibs, faced with a Dundee side intent on providing solid resistance, wrestled to make possession count while, at the other end, goalkeeper Ben Williams had to look sharp to touch away a low Jim McAlister shot before ex-Easter Road star Colin Nish failed to turn an Iain Davidson cross on target, just as Doyle rose to meet Paul Cairney’s inch-perfect cross, the midfielder having created the opening with a scintillating piece of wing-play.

And four minutes into the second half Doyle’s persistence paid further dividends, the striker regaining possession close to the danger area, feeding David Wotherspoon who saw his shot blocked only for Cairney to be up-ended by McAlister as he attempted to latch onto the rebound.

Referee Willie Collum was in no doubt it was a penalty, Leigh Griffiths stepping up to claim his sixth of the season as he consigned his old club to near certain defeat even with almost half the match remaining. It left the Dark Blues boss Barry Smith to lament: “It’s been the story of our season, we probably had the two best chances of the first half and yet end up 1-0 down.

“Then conceding another so early in the second half left us with a mountain to climb.”

It proved too much for Dundee who, with only that victory over Hearts at Tynecastle to show, are already in danger of finding themselves cast adrift while the only regret for Hibs on the day would possibly be that they didn’t help themselves to a few more goals. Wotherspoon did get a third, stepping in off the right touchline to send a low shot across Rab Douglas and into the far corner of the net while the veteran goalkeeper was just thankful to get enough on a vicious Griffiths effort and grateful to defender Gary 
Irvine for knocking Cairney’s angled shot off the line.

Doyle himself admitted he could have had a hat-trick, failing to get enough on a flick from Shefki Kuqi and then blazing Cairney’s cutback high over the bar from a good position. He said: “I was actually a bit disappointed to come off with only one goal.

“But we got three, kept a clean sheet and having gone into the game with our goal difference on zero it’s nice to see that now on the plus side.”