Hibs are starting to show signs of tangible progress after bold decision to back Lee Johnson
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But in previous matches when they haven’t found the net, it has been part of an underwhelming performance across the pitch. Saturday was different. In the Granite City, Hibs were rock-solid at the back. Manager Lee Johnson picked out full-backs CJ Egan-Riley and Lewis Stevenson for praise, and the hosts were restricted to just two shots on goal with David Marshall saving both. Luis ‘Duk’ Lopes was kept quiet and Bojan Miovski was a virtual spectator. Replacements Shayden Morris and Marley Watkins fared little better.
It was streets ahead of the last visit to the north-east, a 4-1 humbling in which Hibs were decent if unspectacular in the first half only to concede a late penalty and effectively collapse in the second. It’s also worth remembering that Hibs don’t have a great record against Aberdeen at Pittodrie with just one win in 14 visits, and that Barry Robson’s side have turned the corner having lost just one of their last nine. On top of that, seven members of the starting line-up this past weekend were different to the XI picked in November. How much things can change in just half a season.
It might well have been a realtively sombre bus journey back to the Capital; striker Kevin Nisbet rueing his penalty miss in particular. The forward has been in fine form since bouncing back, almost incomprehensibly well, from a ten-month injury lay-off. He had missed chances before the spot kick but you would still back him from 12 yards more often than not. Speaking afterwards midfielder Joe Newell said: “Nizzy’s in there apologising to us all but there’s no need for that. He’s a very strong individual, we’ve been there before with him. He’s been out for ten months with his knee and he’s come back and been one of the best strikers in the league. I’ve got no worries about his mental attitude. He’s missed a penalty, it’s not the end of the world. He’s been unbelievable for us not just this season but the last couple of years. He’ll be fine.”
Newell also described the past few months as a ‘rollercoaster of a year in terms of results, performances, and drama’. He’s not wrong. The unbeaten runs, the losing streaks, the constant battle with VAR and the officials, the catalogue of injuries.
“We’ll see at the end of the season but it’s good and positive that everyone is seeing the team we want to be in terms of the way we play,” he added. “In the last four games I think we’ve shown that we’re a good side and we want to be the third-best team in the country. We’re in good form; if we’ve left it too late [for third place] then so be it but there are definitely signs that we’ll be up there next year.”
So perhaps some positivity amid the feelings of frustration at dominating the Don and not getting their just rewards – a far cry from earlier in the season when more often than not the post-match message was that the team had played well but had nothing to show for it. Over the course of the campaign we have seen Hibs progress, although perhaps not with the speed and cohesion that the manager would have envisaged.
From his early days in the job Johnson was stressing the need for time and transfer windows. He has branded Hibs a ‘fixer-upper’ of a club on more than one occasion, highlighted the fact that it is a long-term project to get things to where they need to be on the park. Off the pitch, things have progressed well in terms of the hospitality revamp, new pitches being laid at the training centre, and much more. The arrival of Brian McDermott should help recruitment. Élie Youan has already signed a three-year deal and has shown enough this year to suggest there is more to come; Johnson hinted at ‘trying to retain a couple of the good loans’ while work has been under way for months in terms of identifying additions to the Easter Road squad. There will almost certainly be outgoings as well.
In a season when many Scottish clubs have got rid of their head coach, Hibs have stuck by Johnson and backed him to turn things around – perhaps unusual, given the hokey-cokey nature of football management. But it should allow Hibs to be better prepared for the upcoming season, especially on a recruitment front. The January transfer window was an improvement on last summer with quality over quantity the mantra, and a good number of players moved on. If the pattern continues, this summer should be even better than the winter window. Perhaps some managerial stability will help, especially when it comes to loan arrangements. Johnson has made no secret of his desire to make use of the loan market to bring in players otherwise outwith Hibs’ budget and being able to offer continuity, gametime, and the chance to compete at the top end of the table could make all the difference.
‘Fixer-upper’ and ‘rollercoaster’ are not usually terms associated with positivity, especially in the footballing sphere. But there is overwhelming evidence that, after a rocky season, Hibs can finish on a high and take that into next season. A springboard, if you like, ideally going into European competition. That feeling of preparedness could make a big difference.
It will be a big summer for Hibs regardless of their final league placing. Not making third wouldn’t be underachieving given the fluctuating season, but finishing strongly, and as high as possible, will provide solid foundations to pick up where they left off going into the next season.