Another chance slips by for Hibs in race for second spot
It was, conceded Alan Stubbs, an opportunity missed, one which has swung the race for second place in the Championship table back in favour of Falkirk.
Despite being forced to settle for a no-scoring draw against Morton, Hibs and the Bairns emerged from the weekend to discover nothing had changed, Falkirk themselves no doubt happy with a point from Stark’s Park having twice come from behind against the Championship’s in-form team Raith Rovers.
Falkirk still hold the upper-hand, three points ahead and with a superior goal difference while Hibs have a game in hand, tomorrow night’s clash with a Dumbarton side now assured of another season in Scotland’s second tier.
However, Stubbs and his players will be well aware that they are now in the position, all of their own making given the debilitating run of results they’ve suffered since that shock 3-0 defeat at home by Morton at the beginning of February, of hoping the Greenock outfit can do them a favour in Falkirk this weekend, provided, of course, that they win both their remaining games against the ‘Sons and Queen of the South.
Yes, they could still pip Falkirk on goal difference, but with Peter Houston’s side seven to the good, that would appear something of a long shot for a side which is the lowest scoring of the three top teams in the Championship.
A potential six play-off matches, provided they get that far, increasingly looks certain with the Scottish Cup final against Rangers adding to a congested programme next month, a schedule which would see Stubbs’ side play 56 times this season.
To cut that by even two would ease the burden every so slightly but, Stubbs admitted, he’s prepared to do it the hard way.
He said: “We have said all along we will take what it takes. It could be six, we wanted four and ideally we did not want any.”
With his side having endured a punishing schedule over the past couple of months, constantly playing midweek matches – a consequence of their success in making the finals of both cup competitions – Stubbs has steadfastly refused to accept fatigue as a reason for recent troubles.
But in the wake of this game he did admit it was beginning to take it’s toll, influential midfielder John McGinn – who has had the added burden of international duty at both full and Under-21 levels with Scotland – on the bench for only the second time this season.
However, in the desperate search for that winning goal, Stubbs was forced to call upon the youngster for the final 23 minutes. Even his introduction, though, failed to unlock a well-organised, disciplined Morton side which their boss Jim Duffy readily admitted had set out to make life difficult for their opponents, to “stifle” them.
The Hibs head coach said: “John has been feeling his back for the last couple of weeks. We’ve tried to manage him best we could through these games. Ideally I didn’t want to put him on, but we wanted the three points.”
With or without McGinn Hibs looked flat, perhaps the exertions of that Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Dundee United and the win against Championship title winners Rangers a few days later had drained the players, but goalkeeper Mark Oxley refused to use going from those highs to the antiquated surroundings of Cappielow as any sort of excuse.
He said: “You could use that if you want, but like the manager said before, we went into the game knowing we needed to win every match to give ourselves the best chance of second.”
While Stubbs pointed out that a “lively” pitch had made life difficult, forcing players to concentrate on the ball bobbling around rather playing their natural game, something he felt suited Morton more as they looked to get the ball forward and play off second balls, Oxley demurred, adamant that at this time of the season such surfaces have to be accepted and dealt with and that he and his team-mates will come across similar in the weeks ahead.
A clean sheet, Hibs’ first in ten league matches, was possibly the one positive Stubbs could take from the match, admitting his side hadn’t created enough chances. Anthony Stokes forced Morton goalkeeper Derek Gaston into an acrobatic but routine save before top scorer Jason Cummings curled a superb shot into the top corner only for it to be ruled offside.
“Close, very close,” claimed Stubbs, of assistant referee Sean Carr’s decision, clearly feeling it was another big call which had gone against his side in recent weeks, at Alloa and St Mirren.
He said: “I think it was one of those days where we were not going to get anything off people. We were going to have to make our own luck. I have seen it and it was very close, very close.
“I don’t want to get involved in the politics of officiating, but it looked very, very close. That’s all I can say.”
Morton went even closer to claiming the goal that would have won the day, Bobby Barr latching onto the ball after Niklas Gunnarsson had misjudged Ross Forbes’ crossfield pass only to see his shot crash back off the inside of Oxley’s post.
But the goalkeeper, who has been the subject of much discussion following stand-in Conrad Logan’s Hampden heroics against United, was there to dive at the feet of Denny Johnstone as he pounced on the rebound.
Oxley said: “I got a bit of luck with it coming off the post, but it’s good to makes saves. It’s the first clean sheet for me in a while. Conrad is a great lad, he’s come in and all the boys took to him straight away.
“His performance speaks for itself, but I have to thank the manager for standing by me.”
If Hibs were flat and lethargic Morton, who have caused the Capital side more than a few problems in each meeting of the sides this season, deserved credit as Stubbs insisted. He said: “Everyone thinks clubs like ourselves, Rangers and other teams sometimes just have to turn up and win a game.
“Morton have done really well this season.”
The fact this was also the Greenock side’s final game at home had, Duffy conceded, made his players all the more determined to end with a positive result. He said: “It was always going to be important to stifle the threat Hibs have and my players deserve enormous credit for doing that.
“Hibs have great quality in midfield and up-front, have been scoring a barrowload of goals, but we relegated them to a couple of shots from distance. I cannot remember them having a clear-cut chance in 90 minutes.
“Let’s put it in perspective. Hibs have made two national finals, they still have a good chance of promotion, they have some terrific players so for a club of our standing this was, I feel, a terrific point.”