While many eyes are focused on November 1 and Championship leaders Rangers’ visit to Easter Road, head coach Alan Stubbs and his players will be all too well aware that they face a couple of just as formidable matches in the interim.
Away trips to Falkirk tomorrow night and then Raith Rovers will provide tough tests for the Capital club, the fact that both are enjoying an impressive start to their seasons rather overlooked in the general talk that the title will be fought out between Rangers and Hibs.
A glance at the table merely highlights the tasks ahead, with both the Bairns and Raith unbeaten at home, with each having conceded just one goal on their own turf.
To that end, Stubbs would have been delighted to see strikers Dominique Malonga, Jason Cummings and James Keatings all on the scoresheet as the Easter Road outfit extended their unbeaten run to seven matches with a 4-2 home win over Dumbarton on Saturday, even if they still trail Mark Warburton’s side by 11 points, albeit with a game in hand.
And having been deprived of the luxury of having a full squad at his disposal, Stubbs will be equally as happy to have Keatings, Fraser Fyvie and Islam Feruz back in action after injury, with Jordon Forster on the bench and Farid El Alagui, Henri Anier and Adam Eckersley close to their own returns.
Keeping everyone happy will, of course, be a priority for Stubbs – who joked he’d liked to have made four or five substitutions during this match rather than just the three permitted – as Marvin Bartley and Dylan McGeouch joined Feruz in making second half appearances as Fyvie and Keatings, out since August and September respectively, were withdrawn, as was Cummings, who had played two games in four days for Scotland’s Under-21 side.
Stubbs conceded making three substitutions in the space of just six minutes after his side had cruised into a 4-1 lead had possibly slowed the tempo of the match although the result was never in doubt, even if Sons’ Steven Craig gave his side a glimmer of hope with a second goal 16 minutes from time.
And it was the concession of that goal and Grant Gallagher’s equaliser a minute after Dominique Malonga’s sublime shot had fired Hibs into the lead which became the focus of Stubbs’ ire afterwards, tempering the satisfaction he’d gained from seeing Liam Fontaine, Cummings and Keatings put his side in an unassailable position.
Agreeing it was most unlike his team who had gone into this game boasting the tightest defence in Britain – a mantle they now share with Rangers – and having conceded just one goal in their previous seven matches, Stubbs said: “I’m still boiling a bit to be honest.
“We should not concede goals as simple as that. It’s hard enough winning games of football, but to give a team two goals which, and I do not want to be disrespectful, we played a huge part in.
“The four goals we scored excited me because I thought there were some really good bits of play. I thought we were intelligent going forward, clever one touch lay-offs, good movement, good running off the ball.
“I expect that – but I do not expect to give away two goals.”
Once Stubbs’ anger as a former centre half had subsided a bit, he’d reflect on what were far more positive points for Hibs, the boundless energy of John McGinn and Liam Henderson in the middle of the park, Fyvie’s positional sense and astuteness of pass as he played the anchor role in the diamond and Keatings’ clever runs and touches at the head of it.
It was, perhaps, a more unusual position for Keatings, who has been dogged by hamstring problems since July, to fill behind Malonga and Cummings, but he did so superbly and was rewarded with Hibs fourth goal, a wonderful display of one-touch football down the left flank which resulted in Lewis Stevenson finding him in space to slot the ball beyond former Easter Road goalkeeper Mark Brown.
Stubbs said: “I was delighted for him. His intelligence is such that he does not have to look, he knows people are there. He is very clever and he didn’t surprise me at all. And when he got the ball I knew he was going to score – that’s the confidence he gives you. It’s great to see him back on the pitch, but it was great to see other people back as well.”
As expected Dumbarton, surprise winners over Hibs on the opening day of the Championship season, came with the intention of making life hard for the home side, their approach mirroring that of virtually every other club which has visited Easter Road so far this season with, at times, all 11 of their players compacted into the final third of the pitch.
Malonga’s strike came at a perfect time, easing any anxieties, only for skipper David Gray’s misplaced clearance to fall for Gallagher to equalise within a minute. However, Dumbarton themselves hardly had time to celebrate, Fontaine getting on the end of McGinn’s free-kick to head home.
Cummings’ penalty put the game beyond Dumbarton and when Keatings made it four on the hour mark, most fans were expecting at least a couple more.
Stubbs said: “We started a bit slowly, then a bit of quality from Dom brings the game to life only for a bit of craziness to bring the game level. But after that we stepped it up, got ourselves in a commanding position and at that point every time we went forward we looked as if we were going to create and score.
“Maybe the substitutions slowed the tempo a bit. I wanted us to be a bit more ruthless and while the result was never in any danger but I was just not happy with the goals we lost even although we’d scored four.”