Hibs now prepared to grind out results '“ Shinnie
If further proof were needed that Neil Lennon has brought a steely edge to Hibs, then this was it. A fifth consecutive league win clinched with a performance which will be long forgotten come the end of the season.
It was, however, a display which brought three important points at a ground where the Easter Road side lost twice last season, the second of which saw their title hopes begin to evaporate.
Narrow as the victory over Dumbarton – the Championship’s only part-time team – might have been, it was, in Lennon’s eyes, every bit as satisfying as the 4-0 demolition of Morton a couple of weeks earlier.
A first-half Jason Cummings penalty was enough to see Hibs home in a game which many would concede they’d have struggled to win last season against Dumbarton’s physicality and late aerial bombardment.
“We said at half-time if we have to win 1-0 then we win 1-0,” revealed midfielder Andrew Shinnie. “Keep clean sheets and you win games – and that’s what we did.
“You never feel fully comfortable at 1-0, one long ball you do not deal with or a stunning hit from 20 yards into the top corner – anything can happen. All we had to deal with were long balls and the boys at the back dealt with that brilliantly.
“It was a bit of a grind, but we knew it was going to be a tough game. The gaffer had been drumming that into us all week. It’s a tough place to go, teams have been undone here this season, as we were last season, but we were up to the battle.
“We are not going to let teams back into games and that was maybe a criticism over the last couple of seasons. It’s not going to happen this year.
“I think that’s the difference in us this year, we are up for the battle, we can grind games out as well as playing good football as we did in beating Morton.”
And Shinnie, on-loan for the season from Birmingham City, highlighted the impact Lennon, himself a highly combative player, has had in toughening his side.
Offering the caveat that he, of course, wasn’t at Easter Road last season, Shinnie said: “He’s very determined. He’s a top manager and he gets the best our of us.
“I wasn’t here last year, but the boys quite liked Alan Stubbs as a manager but I think he was maybe more relaxed, more calm and maybe the boys did not feel so much pressure to win every game.
“But the manager won’t let us off with slipping up at a place like this. Everyone is on their toes, knowing if you are not doing it you will be off and that’s showing in the performances.”
The Cheaper Insurance Direct Stadium beneath Dumbarton Rock, with only fencing surrounding three sides, makes for an unsettling venue for those making their first trip to the ground.
And the host club did their best to ensure conditions on the pitch weren’t to their visitors’ liking; the grass uncut and unwatered, making it difficult for Hibs to get their passing game going, forcing them to match Dumbarton’s more direct approach – which they did.
Shinnie said: “It was hard to play on, the grass was quite long and it was spongy. Dumbarton made it compact in the first half but the goal opened it up a bit.”
The decisive moment came in the 31st minute, referee Greg Aitken ruling Hibs striker Grant Holt had been manhandled by Dumbarton defender Gregor Buchanan as he attempted to get on the end of David Gray’s header back across goal from beyond the far post as he met a deep John McGinn cross.
“I thought it was harsh,” claimed Sons boss Stevie Aitken, before conceding: “If it had been at the other end, I would have been screaming for it myself.”
Aitken admitted it was the experience of 37-year-old Holt which had brought the decision. He said: “I don’t think he has flung himself. He is an experienced player, he’s played at the top level. He’s felt contact and gone down.”
Lennon, naturally, had no second thoughts as to the validity of the ref’s decision. He said: “It was as clear penalty. The boy has no chance of winning the ball but he goes right over the top of him.
“I thought Grant was outstanding. He’s no Torres, but he holds the ball up – he’s clever, obviously experienced, and when we are struggling he is a good out ball for us.”
Having tucked away that penalty on his 100th appearance for Hibs, Cummings could easily have claimed a hat-trick only to spurn two gilt-edged chances within a few more minutes.
He was left in the clear as Buchanan hammered a clearance off him only to loft the ball over and then, when Gray nodded another deep cross – this time from Lewis Stevenson – into the danger area, he could do no more than head it over with the goal gaping.
Shinnie said: “Jason has scored in every game we have played. He maybe could have had a couple right after the penalty but they didn’t come. We won and that’s all that matters.”
Lennon, though, was less forgiving, accusing the Scotland Under-21 player of a sloppiness in front of goal. Recalling Cummings’ penalty miss against Dundee United in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final when he attempted a ‘Panenka’ only to put the ball over, the Hibs boss said: “You can’t always try to be clever. If you are 3-0 up with ten minutes to go then fair enough.
“Jason is always in the right place but his finishing can be a bit sloppy. Even before the penalty when Paul Hanlon headed the ball across goal he should have finished it.”
There may have been a few tense minutes as the travelling support wished the clock to run that bit quicker but in the end it was all smiles in the away dressing-room as Shinnie revealed.
He said: “We’ve got a great bunch of lads, the gaffer gets us going and there’s a great spirit in the team, everyone laughing and having a joke.
“That’s what it is all about. You’ve worked hard and won the game. That’s five in a row, three clean sheets on the bounce so we are going well.”