Hibs falter on emotional night at Easter Road as Rangers spoil Ron Gordon send-off
It was supposed to be a final, rousing send-off for Hibs’ late owner Ron Gordon. In the end it was a meek, haphazard performance that reinforced the fact that the Easter Road side remain a work in progress.
The Gordon clan motto is ‘bide and fecht’, or ‘stay and fight’. There wasn’t much of the latter in the Hibs performance, which had started so well when Matthew Hoppe’s cutback was turned into his own net by Connor Goldson with fewer than ten minutes on the clock.
There is usually an underlying menace to matches between these two clubs, an extra bit of needle missing from most other games. Given the emotion driving this game, the lead-up to kick-off felt different – the same level of tension, certainly, but an added defiance to the rendition of ‘Sunshine on Leith’ as the the two teams took to the field, met by a banner in the East Stand reading ‘While our chief still shines on Leith’. Such was the strength and volume of the Hibs fans’ singing that those in the Rangers support who were doing their best to disrupt the tribute were almost drowned out.
Unsurprisingly the match started at a break-neck speed, Élie Youan looking to use his pace down the left flank, and the Frenchman was involved in Hibs’ first opportunity, beating Tavernier and slipping the ball to Lewis Stevenson, whose driven reverse pass found Ewan Henderson. The playmaker cut it back at height, picking out Hoppe but the American forward didn’t catch it cleanly and his effort drifted harmlessly wide.
Hoppe went one better five minutes later. Henderson’s free kick to the back post found the on-loan Middlesbrough forward all alone and he knocked it back into the six-yard box, Goldson attempting to clear but instead slamming the ball into the roof of the net. Three sides of Easter Road erupted. You could almost hear Ron Gordon, arms outstretched, exclaiming: ‘I love it!’
But the lead didn’t last long, however. Rangers launched an immediate attack from kick-off and although referee Don Robertson didn’t point to the spot when Ryan Kent was caught by CJ Egan-Riley in the penalty area, the official was advised to give the incident another look by the VAR, and after a second watch he pointed to the spot. Tavernier stepped up and struck a powerful effort past David Marshall.
It became one-way traffic for a spell after the equaliser, Čolak and Fashion Sakala wreaking havoc in the final third. The Croatian forward twice went close while Kent forced a good save from Marshall. It seemed merely a matter of time before a second Rangers goal and it came ten minutes from the break. Marshall had just somehow tipped a Borna Barisic header over the bar from point-blank range but was beaten moments later when Sakala burned down the left flank and his low cross was tucked in by Čolak from close range.
Lee Johnson had spoken about his team’s new-found resilience, particularly in defence, but they looked more shaky than steely in the first 45 minutes. Clearances were hurried, passes misplaced, and Rangers had ample time and space to do as they pleased.
It continued into the second half. Fewer than ten minutes had elapsed when Marshall’s attempted clearance from a passback only went as far as Ryan Jack, who headed it back into the path of Sakala who spun and passed the ball into the net to make it three.
Johnson was already preparing to freshen things up in attack with the introduction of Mykola Kukharevych and Kevin Nisbet when Rangers made it four. Čolak grabbed his second, Hibs failing to clear their lines and the striker afforded far too much time and space to bury it.
Sakala had the ball in the net again from Tavernier’s cross but the offside flag against the right-back chalked it off. It was an all-too-brief moment of respite for Hibs who remained under the cosh. Johnson attempted to stem the flow by switching to a back three with Egan-Riley joining Will Fish and Paul Hanlon in the backline and Marijan Čabraja replacing Stevenson and taking up the left-wingback role with Cadden on the right.
With 20 minutes remaining Kukharevych and Nisbet countered but the Scotland striker elected to attempt a curling effort that didn’t trouble Allan McGregor. It was Hibs’ first real chance of the second half, and the las
Included among the many tributes paid to Gordon on Tuesday at the memorial service was that one of his most-used phrases was, ‘We’re in great shape’. Hibs might be in better shape off the pitch but fragilities remain on it. There are caveats, of course: three midfielders out injured, Kukharevych and Nisbet still returning to full fitness for example. But the scoreline did not flatter Rangers who were slick, clinical, and efficient – everything Johnson wants his Hibs team to be.
Ten days before the trip to Celtic will be useful for returning players to improve their fitness – but will Johnson set his team out to have a go at Celtic Park again? Or will he adopt a more conservative approach? His dedication to a certain style of play is admirable, and the type of football the Hibs fans want to see but the painful truth of the matter is that against the Glasgow clubs especially, it doesn’t have the same effect as it does against teams who set up differently against them.
As the final whistle neared, the snow began to fall, made visible against the many empty seats that had long since been vacated by despondent Hibs fans. Ron and the Gordon family wanted to turn Hibs into a club capable of competing consistently at the top end of the table. On this showing, they have a way to go yet. First on the agenda for Johnson will be digging out a better performance in Glasgow on March 18th.