Even Pat Fenlon admits he’d have been hard pushed to believe Hibs would be up there challenging SPL champions Celtic at this stage of the season following a miserable opening day at Tannadice when a 3-0 hammering by Dundee United had most tipping the Easter Road outfit for another battle against the threat of relegation.
But what a difference the four months between that match and now have made, Fenlon’s side totally unrecognizable and one which is slowly but surely beginning to regain the trust of their supporters.
While they may be far from the finished article, there’s a grit, determination, resilience, work ethic – call it what you like – about the players in green and white, a team which is far from being regarded as the soft touch they once were.
As they showed in this match, they can play a bit when they have the ball and with Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle they offer an ever present danger to opposition defences, but when their backs are against the wall, as they were as United pushed unrelentingly for an equaliser, they are prepared to stand their corner and go toe-to-toe with anyone.
The result is a home record which can’t be bettered by any other club in the SPL, Fenlon’s men unbeaten at home so far having already won more than twice as many games as they did in the whole of last season. Easter Road is gradually returning to the fortress is once was, a fact reflected in attendances which are creeping up week-by-week and, according to Fenlon, sensing just when their support is needed to help see their team over the line.
Rather than walk around with their heads bowed, Hibs fans are doing so with their chests thrust out in pride, delighted and most probably more than a little taken aback at the transformation they have seen over the course of the last few months.
The sense of self-belief which has been permeating through Fenlon’s squad was highlighted by the way in which they overcome the loss of skipper James McPake before kick-off to a back spasm, the big defender seen as a talismanic figure by many, and his absence along with that of Tim Clancy, forcing a major reshuffle with Lewis Stevenson coming in at left back for his first game since August, meaning Ryan McGivern and Paul Hanlon moving one over to their right.
As such, Hibs looked a touch vulnerable, particularly considering the aerial power of United captain Jon Daly, but Fenlon’s players reasoned the best line of defence was attack as they caught United totally unawares, taking the match by the throat and getting their reward with a stunning opening goal from Leigh Griffiths. Stevenson initiated the move, slipping the ball forward to Paul Cairney and he, in turn, delivered a superb reverse pass for Eoin Doyle who wasted no time in whipping a cross in to the back post where Griffiths dispatched it beyond goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak with a right-foot volley, scoring for the fifth game in succession and taking his tally for the season to a round dozen.
Hibs arguably deserved more from that first half but doubled their lead minutes after the interval and again Cairney was at the heart of it, taking Tom Taiwo’s pass before “nutmegging” Tannadice defender Keith Watson and cutting the ball back for Doyle to lash into the roof of the net.
At that point it all looked too easy for Hibs but their propensity for gifting the opposition a goal came to the fore again, stand-in captain Paul Hanlon, under pressure from one-time Scotland Under-21 team-mate Johnny Russell, knocked the ball back to goalkeeper Ben Williams who appeared to be caught in two minds as to how to deal with the situation, managing only to clear it as far as Gary Mackay-Steven who had no trouble in sliding it into the empty net.
Hanlon explained: “I tried to get it back to him so he could clear it but he said it was between his feet and he took a heavy touch. It was disappointing. But we were delighted with the win. We spoke before the season started about making Easter Road a fortress, that was our aim, to starting winning games and at home and to be unbeaten is brilliant.”
Thereafter, though, Hibs’ battling qualities came into play even if they did ride their luck on more than one occasion, former Hearts star Rudi Skacel ruled offside as he got on the end of Willo Flood’s cross although television pictures suggested he was just on before the Czech midfielder took a Taiwo clearance from a corner on the volley and blasted the ball off Williams’ bar.
United boss Peter Houston was left to bemoan not only those moments but his side’s sluggish start which left them trying to overcome that two-goal deficit. He said: “We were poor in the first half. We talked about starting the game properly but we put so much effort into the second half I thought we deserved something out the game.
“The linesman should have recognised Skacel was in line and if he is in line he is onside and has to recognise he has made an error.”
Fenlon, however, was naturally delighted with a win which put Hibs back on top for a third time this season with their stay there extended for another six days at least after St Johnstone came from behind to snatch at point at Celtic Park in the day’s later kick-off. The Hibs boss said: “I thought it was a complete performance to be honest. First half we were fantastic, in spells it was probably the best we have player for a while in relation to playing football, passing the ball and moving. We had to defend second half but football is about doing both and we did that.”
Tempers frayed towards the end of a tense affair with Skacel, wearing the No. 51 on his back to signify his part in the Scottish Cup triumph over Hibs in May, making a 5-1 gesture before pointing to his back following the final whistle.
Houston, who had previously claimed to having not realised the significance of Skacel’s choice of number, insisted he hadn’t seen his player’s actions, adding: “He was getting enough stick from them.”
Skacel, as you’d expect, had certainly been getting it tight from the home support – even as he warmed up before the match – but, Hanlon insisted, he and his team-mates were more concerned about the couple of chances their opponent had enjoyed than his antics. The centre-half said: “We weren’t too bothered about Rudi Skacel, to be honest. We concentrated on ourselves and we took the three points.”
Fenlon added: “We told the players not to get involved in anything, It’s about us playing football and winning matches, that’s the best answer for anyone is to go and win the game.”