Paul Hanlon today rounded on those accusing him and his Easter Road team-mates of having “bottled it” after they lost the first leg of their Premiership semi-final play-off at Ibrox.
Describing the tag as “offensive”, the Hibs defender insisted: “If we’d gone there and not turned up in front of a bit crowd and buckled, didn’t get the ball down, didn’t create anything, sat in and did not take part, that’s when you don’t have bottle.
“But we were all there taking part, getting on the ball, trying to make things happen for the team. However, at the end of the day they took their chances and we didn’t.”
Hibs boss Alan Stubbs, pictured right, was also clearly irked in the wake of the 2-0 defeat – courtesy of goals from Nicky Clark and Kenny Miller – declaring himself “sick” of answering questions about his side’s mental strength, his Rangers counterpart Stuart McCall, while delighted with the “gritty, determined” performance of his team, full of praise for the Capital outfit as he warned the tie is far from over.
McCall also admitted the scoreline flattered his side, a view echoed by both Hanlon and Stubbs, the former Scotland Under-21 captain saying: “Obviously it wasn’t the result we wanted, but I still believe we are right in the tie and the rest of the squad shares that belief.
“I thought we played well in stages in the first half. In fact, we played well in stages throughout the game, but were just lacking that wee bit in the final third. I think we gave as good as we got – we weren’t outplayed by any stretch of the imagination.
“Unfortunately they took two chances and we didn’t take ours. We had plenty of corners [13 to Rangers’ one] but we couldn’t get the goal that would have put us in a better position.”
While most observers predicted a tight, uncompromising match with both sides expected to adopt a cautious approach, it turned out to be an open game which, at times, raged from end-to-end. But with half-time approaching it looked as if the players would be heading up the tunnel with the game goal-less, only for a flash of genius from on-loan Newcastle midfielder Haris Vuckic to carve open Hibs’ defence.
The Slovenian conjured up a delightful flick for Richard Foster to set up Clark before Miller got on the end of Lee Wallace’s knockdown 18 minutes into the second half to leave Stubbs’ players facing an uphill battle.
Hanlon said: “I think we were all expecting it would be a quite cagey game, but when you saw the two teams lining up with a diamond formation in the middle of the park, you realised it was going to be quite open.
“I didn’t realise their opening goal was so close to half-time, which makes it all the more disappointing to have conceded it. I’d imagine both sides were about to settle for it being goal-less at that point. However, it was a great piece of skill from Vuckic. Liam Craig and Lewis Stevenson were over that side, they’d blocked off the pass in behind and they said the only thing Vuckic could do was to scoop it over them.
“He’s got that in his locker and we’ll have to keep him quiet tomorrow.
“At the second goal Liam and myself got out trying to block the shot [from Dean Shiels] and the ball has hit Liam’s back and spun up in the air for Wallace to head on. It was one of those things. We were disappointed in the goals we lost, but we’ve no time to dwell on that.”
Hibs’ best chance of the match came midway through the first half, Dominique Malonga skipping past Marius Zaliukas to fire a cross to the back post where Jason Cummings, the Championship’s top scorer with 20 goals, fluffed his lines, missing an opportunity which could have put an entirely different complexion on the tie.
Cummings and Malonga had both scored in each of Hibs’ previous three games, the last of which, the 3-0 win at Falkirk which clinched second place in the table, having come some 18 days earlier, Stubbs having used that enforced break to take his players to La Manga for a week’s training in the sunshine of Spain.
Hanlon, however, insisted that break had nothing to do with Cummings’ miss, saying: “I wouldn’t blame that. If you’d seen Jason in training, he was different class. Jason has been great for us all season, he’s our top scorer and between them Jason and Dominique have scored 36 goals this season.
“It’s something I’m sure they’ll be looking to put right tomorrow. There’s no way we’ll be going into the game on a downer. We remain positive. The manager keeps our spirits up. He’s told us we played well in spells at Ibrox, but now we know exactly what we have to do, there are no grey areas.
“We need to win and obviously have getting those two goals back as our first target.”
As anxious as he and his team-mates will be, though, to begin pegging Rangers back, Hanlon admitted they’ll have to do so with a measure of caution, well aware that if they were to concede the first goal at home, then an already difficult mission would become all but impossible.
He said: “If we were to get an early goal it would put pressure on Rangers, but at the end of the day if it comes later in the game it will change things again.”
Stubbs also made the salient point that should Hibs level the tie an extra 30 minutes would be played, something which could prove a test for McCall’s players given this will be their third high-pressure match in just six days.
McCall had talked of his players “flagging” in the latter stages on Wednesday, but while he didn’t detect any great drop off in their energy levels, Hanlon said: “I think tomorrow will be the biggest test for them given the games they’ve had to play. But we’ll concentrate on ourselves, getting refreshed and being ready to go.
“We know from our own bitter experience last year in the play-off against Hamilton that being 2-0 up from the first leg doesn’t mean the tie is over. We know it is not out of our reach by any means.”