Possibly the most important 15 minutes of Hibs’ season took place in the dressing-room at Palmerston Park. Having witnessed a less than satisfactory first-half performance head coach Alan Stubbs set to work.
No ranting and raving, just a quiet reminder to his players that they had failed to match their own high standards in the preceding 45 minutes of a game which held great significance for the Easter Road outfit.
With second-placed Rangers idle again, their match at Cowdenbeath falling victim to a frozen pitch, the opportunity had presented itself for Hibs to narrow the gap on the Ibrox club once more to a mere two points.
Not only that, victory would allow Hibs to begin to shake off Queen of the South, a side which has proved to be as pesky as fellow play-off rivals Falkirk to the Capital side’s ambitions, Stubbs’ players having gone into this match having picked up a mere two points from five previous clashes with those two opponents this season.
But second-half goals from Dylan McGeouch and Scott Robertson steered Hibs to a win, and they are now breathing down the necks of the troubled Glasgow club with the chance to leapfrog them when they face Raith Rovers on Saturday.
The three points also opened up a more comfortable advantage over Queens, the added bonus for the travelling Hibs fans on hearing that Falkirk had, at last, ended Championship leaders Hearts’ unbeaten run, tempered by the realisation that as results elsewhere take on an ever increasing significance as we get down to the business end of the season the Bairns had kept themselves very much in that chase for a shot at promotion.
“It doesn’t really affect me,” insisted Stubbs on being informed of the outcome at Tynecastle. “That’s the first I have heard the results. It’s a great result for Falkirk but most importantly it was a great result for us.”
Some took that as a reference to events in Gorgie but Stubbs was perhaps reflecting more on the impact victory at Palmerston Park, a destination which has proved problematic to Hibs in recent seasons, would have on his own side. “We’ve eaten into the gap to the teams above us, we have made the gap between Queens and ourselves bigger but not Falkirk. It’s been a good day but we are concentrating on ourselves,” he said.
And when it was pointed out that Hibs now have the chance to overhaul Rangers, who will be spending the coming weekend on League Cup action as they face Old Firm rivals Celtic in that much anticipated semi-final at Hampden, Stubbs countered: “I’m not really focused on next week because this [Palmerston Park] is a tough place to come, Queen of the South have been great this season, their results have shown that.
“We’ve got a big result. I think the team is progressing all the time. I firmly believed what happened a couple of weeks ago against Falkirk was a blip and we’ve since kept two clean sheets. We’ll enjoy this result. I’ll give myself an hour then start thinking about Raith.”
So that gentle half-time cajoling had done the trick, Robertson admitting Stubbs had made it clear he wasn’t happy with what he had seen after Iain Russell gave Hibs an early fright with a shot which hit the woodwork although, at the other end, his team-mate Ian McShane was in the right place to nod Liam Fontaine’s netbound header off the line.
Stubbs said: “I did not feel as if we got control of the game, we were a little bit sloppy, didn’t win enough second balls. I just felt as if we were not doing enough. I had a wee pop at them at half-time. There were no raised voices because they are setting the standards. But every now and again you have to reinforce it, that they need to lift it and pick it up and that’s what they did in the second half. I got the response I was wanting.”
Having struggled to command possession Hibs began to tighten their grip without carrying any real threat until Scott Allan played a sumptuous through ball, tempting Queens goalkeeper James Atkinson to race from his line in an attempt to beat Jason Cummings to it. He lost. Cummings won an obvious penalty as he was sent crashing, leaving McGeouch to drill the ball into the corner. And that breakthrough strike was quickly followed by another from Robertson who has hit a rich vein of form, making it three in his last five matches as he hammered Cummings’ perfectly weighted lay-off into the net.
The midfielder said: “It was a big three points for us.
“We knew with Rangers’ game being off we had a realistic chance to close the gap on them. We didn’t play that great but we managed to pick up the points and that’s maybe the first time this season we haven’t been at our best but won.
“It would be fair to say the manager wasn’t at all happy and that was justified. It wasn’t our best performance and he wasn’t happy about the way we were playing and it was a bit of a kick to get us going.
“I think we needed that. We’d had a couple of chances in the first half but we needed that to get us going.”
As Robertson acknowledged it was again a touch of quality from Allan which put Hibs in control, Stubbs revealing preparation for the match had included working such a scenario.
He said: “We’d worked with Jason during the week about getting down the sides of the two centre backs. We did it on one occasion with success. The movement was really good and then Robbo took the second goal expertly well.”
Between those strikes Hibs might have scored again, McGeouch’s surging run from almost the halfway line taking him deep into the penalty area where he squared the ball for Martin Boyle who thought he’d notched his first Hibs goal only for Queens defender Lewis Kidd to get the slightest of touches on the ball, deflecting it onto the post and safety.
Two, however, were more than enough as McGeouch agreed saying: “We battled away in the first half and in the second we got the ball down and passed it.
“It’s a hard place and a hard surface to play on so to get three points was excellent.
We’ve started to gel in the last couple of months and we are getting the results we weren’t getting at the start of the season. We are a good footballing team, we get it down and pass it, we just don’t go back to front and it’s great we are finally getting the results to go with our performances.”