THIS might possibly have been Hibs most unspectacular win of the season on the same day that Hearts ran riot at Tynecastle, yet for all that it can still be judged as a yardstick of their continuing progress.
They had to dig deep and work their socks off but they got the victory they needed thanks to a sublimely executed first half free kick from Scott Allan. By contrast, back in August at this same venue Alan Stubbs men crumpled to a 2-1 defeat and were every bit in the doldrums as the result suggested.
Stubbs was the first to concede it wasn’t pretty but was also quick to remind everyone just how difficult a proposition Alloa can be on their own synthetic patch. “I don’t think any of the leading pack have won here by big scorelines which tells you everything about the place,” he observed. “Today was all about us getting 3 points and capitalising on the Falkirk – Rangers result last night. To be fair to the lads it wasn’t one of our best performances but I think it was one of the most pivotal in terms of the result.”
It was a game where a combination of tenacious opponents and a near continuous downpour required Hibs to put in a real shift and stick with a belief that maneuvering the pace across the pitch at pace would eventually facilitate a breakthrough for them. Alloa’s players simply swarmed around the midfield and their defence played with impressive discipline. For all their possession the Easter Road side found it difficult to carve out enough space to properly test Craig McDowall and it would have been easy frustration to get the better of them as a plethora of attacking incursions foundered by the hosts’18 yard line.
Concentration was also a necessary watchword for the visitors’ rearguard. Alloa may not have pushed upfield in numbers but in their starting forward pairing Phil Roberts and Isaac Layne they had menacing pace. They also carried a threat at set pieces with Hibs dealing unconvincingly with a succession of corners midway through the opening 45 minutes.
Not for the first time in this campaign it took the composure of Scott Allan to change the complexion of this encounter and secure the outcome for Stubbs men. The hosts conceded a free kick just on the edge of their own box and the midfielder took aim and drilled a precision drive into the bottom of the net with McDowall unable to get near it for only his second goal of the season. “That’s what he does,” reflected Stubbs, “He can be the difference. When he does produce that moment of quality more often than not he’s the one that can open up defences. We’ve been on at him to have more shots at goal, he’s got the belief, but sometimes he wants too much to provide rather than take goal scoring opportunities”.
The breakthrough encouraged Hibs to press forward with greater confidence and yet they were reminded of the fragility of their advantage minutes before the interval as a Layne shot had Mark Oxley scrambling to divert the ball to safety.
This itself was a foretaste of what was to come in the 2nd half - Alloa’s spirit was far from broken and the script was to follow a very similar and at times frustrating path for the visitors. Once again there was territorial dominance aplenty for them but nearly every time they took aim for McDowall’s goal there as a black and gold shirt throwing itself in the way. Substitute Martin Boyle ought to have wrapped it all up as he found himself in the clear at the far post but the ball bobbled off his shin and went the wrong side of the post. David Gray had a not dissimilar opportunity in the closing stages but blazed it over the bar.
Despite this inability to put the game to bed, it has to be said that there rarely looked like any prospect of the 3 points slipping from Hibs grasp as they have done on previous occasions this season when they have been defending a single goal advantage, something which was acknowledged by Alloa manager Barry Smith.
“We didn’t use the ball as well as we normally do and we should have done better with our decision making. That might be down to Hibs and their pressing – they press the ball well. But they had to work hard for their 3 points today.”
“I was disappointed that the free kick that led to their goal came from a corner for us. That’s something we should deal with. Obviously it’s a good free kick and I’ll just need to look at it again to see whether our positioning was what it should be.”
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