Hibs push on from the back

Sean O'Hanlon misses a chance
Sean O'Hanlon misses a chance
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Craig BROWN was undoubtedly stretching it a bit far when he suggested Hibs can embark on an unbeaten run between now and the end of the season, particularly when you consider SPL leaders Celtic will pitch up at Easter Road on Sunday protecting a record of 17 straight wins which has made Neil Lennon’s players favourites to complete the treble.

But the Aberdeen boss, renowned for being effusive in his praise of opponents, did have a point of sorts. For a side which had shipped 14 goals in its previous five games Hibs have, over the course of their last two matches, looked an entirely different proposition.

Back-to-back clean sheets may not seem much to shout about, but you have to go back an entire year to recall when Hibs achieved such a feat, those shut-outs coming against St Mirren and Inverness Caley in the midst of that five-match winning streak which hauled the Edinburgh club out of relegation trouble.

Then, an influx of new players in the January transfer window transformed Hibs’ fortunes although they were unable to sustain the revival, managing to win just one of their remaining ten games as they crashed to a tenth place finish.

Colin Calderwood ultimately paid the price but now, as then, his successor Pat Fenlon will be hoping his recent imports can produce the same short-term success, the Irishman having openly admitted his over-riding priority given the shambles he inherited is simply to ensure SPL survival.

Like Calderwood, Fenlon has enjoyed seeing his signings – eight in all – make an immediate impact, a place in the quarter-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup something of an added bonus but one which shouldn’t distract from the goal of keeping their place in Scotland’s top flights.

As such every point is precious, Hibs seemingly embroiled in a two-horse race with Dunfermline in the fight to avoid the drop although both will be hoping they can reel in one or two others to make things a bit more interesting at the bottom.

Whether or not they can do so remains to be seen and until that happens any advantage, no matter how slight, one can gain over the other is a matter of importance, Hibs now a single point ahead, enjoying a superior goal difference and with a game in hand.

Fenlon knows full well, however, that scenario can change in an instant but he can take some comfort from the fact the new arrivals appear to have almost seamlessly adapted to their new surroundings and team-mates. Given the signings – the vast majority of them on loan – were made over the course of a month, some are already more familiar to the fans than others, the supporters being given their first glimpse of Jorge Claros.

The Honduran internationalist can probably expect to come under the microscope more than others given the background to his move from Central America via a trial spell with Rangers, the 26-year-old making an admittedly sluggish start but doing enough over the course of the 90 minutes against the Dons to suggest he’ll prove to be a valuable, if temporary, acquisition.

Composed on the ball and quick to see a pass, the player nicknamed “Pitbull” isn’t shy of the “other side” of the game, happy to put his foot in when necessary and willing to track a 50-yard run to get his challenge in.

Claros’ arrival saw Lewis Stevenson, who has been enjoying a new lease of life in central midfield under Fenlon, shunted wide left to accommodate the former Motagua star, but there were no complaints despite him being left feeling “knackered” with the shift he was asked to put in.

Stevenson, who hails from the less exotic climes of Kirkcaldy, said: “I think Jorge is going to be a top player for us. He’s taken my position, but I have to accept that, he’s an internationalist, he’s a quality player and hopefully he can give us that spark to get up the table.

“Jorge has a bit of everything, he gets on the ball, he can tackle, he has a great engine, everything you want from a midfielder these days. He’s been a great addition, not just him but all the boys who have come in. There’s a great buzz about the place even though we are where we are in the table.”

If Claros has more to offer then another of Fenlon’s new signings, Matt Doherty, has possibly already shown all he can do. A confident and impressive debut at right back, the 20-year-old from Wolves was equally commanding in the centre of a defence which, bar left back Pa Kujabi, was totally reshaped, helping to ensure that again goalkeeper Graham Stack hardly had to get his gloves dirty.

All Hibs’ defensive woes, of course, haven’t disappeared overnight but apart from a couple of threatening balls across the six-yard box and a header which Dons skipper Andrew Considine should have put between the posts rather than past, that was about it for the visitors.

And if it hadn’t been for a couple of eye-catching saves from Pittodrie goalkeeper Jason Brown – who has now lost just three goals in eight matches – all three points could well have been Hibs’, the Welsh internationalist rising to touch aside a David Wotherspoon effort and then blocking Isaiah Osbourne’s low shot although the midfielder would probably have reckoned the build-up play deserved better.

A controversial penalty was enough to give Aberdeen victory last time these two teams met and again there was a contentious moment when the ball struck the upraised arm of Considine. According to Hibs defender George Francomb referee Crawford Allan’s explanation to him was that he couldn’t be certain who was involved and so couldn’t award a spot kick.

Like Allan, Fenlon wasn’t totally convinced although his players most certainly were, the Hibs boss saying: “It all happened so quickly but the boys are saying it was.”

As at Pittodrie in December, it looked as if one goal would settle matters for either side but neither could conjure one up, the upshot being a second no-scoring draw between the teams at Easter Road although this occasion was far more entertaining than that tedious match back in September.

Fenlon said: “I’m a bit disappointed that we did not pick up the three points but we are pleased with a lot of what we saw, there were a few good performances. Defensively we were solid which is a big plus for us, another clean sheet, two in a row which has not happened for a while.”