Hibs final word: Rangers will pose test but Easter Road side has the tools to go the distance

Signs of development are promising, writes Patrick McPartlin

By Patrick McPartlin
Monday, 14th September 2020, 7:30 am
Jamie Murphy vies for the ball with Marcus Fraser during Hibs' 3-0 win at St Mirren

Twelve months ago, Hibs were conceding late goals with alarming frequency. On one or two occasions, the Easter Road defence was generous enough to throw in a BOGOF offer as they surrendered two-goal leads.

After seven league matches last term, Hibs had conceded 16 times so it's quite something that a year later, Hibs have played the same number of matches and are still to concede from open play.

Having a settled defence has clearly had an impact this season and that the backline looks so assured and works as a unit whether playing as a back three or four is all the more impressive with a 21-year-old at centre-back and an 18-year-old at left-back.

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But while a lot of attention has been focused on Josh Doig and Ryan Porteous, the performances of Paul Hanlon have almost slipped beneath the radar.

The 30-year-old is now in his 14th season with Hibs, having first broken through during the 2007/08 campaign.

The local lad has been there for the highs of Scottish Cup glory as well as the lows of relegation, and has been a first pick for several managers.

Despite that, he has been criticised at times for being too easily bullied by opposition strikers; brushed off the ball by burly target men or swatted aside by bustling centre-forwards.

There was no evidence of that against St Mirren as Hanlon comfortably coped with Jon Obika and produced a number of important blocks, tackles, and interceptions throughout the 90 minutes as Hibs maintained their run of not conceding from open play.

Hanlon has formed a good partnership with Porteous but has also looked assured in a back three. Jack Ross rates the defender highly and this could be the season where the defender finally silences his critics for good.

It's not just the defence that has been shored up. Hibs look far more dangerous in the final third with Martin Boyle, Jamie Murphy, and Drey Wright all able to supply ammunition for Christian Doidge and Kevin Nisbet.

There is still a question mark over the midfield but Hibs are far more resilient in the middle of the park with Alex Gogic scrapping away, and if Joe Newell can replicate his performance against St Mirren on a weekly basis then Jack Ross will have a very strong team at his disposal.

The inclusion, too, of academy products in the team is a sign of the hard work going on at East Mains.

Hibs finished the match in Paisley with five academy graduates on the park – Doig, Porteous, Jamie Gullan, Paul Hanlon, and Ryan Shanley.

Unused substitute Lewis Stevenson made six, while there have been places on the bench for Kevin Dabrowski, Fraser Murray, and Ben Stirling since the opening game of the season and 15-year-old goalkeeper Murray Johnson has taken part in matchday warm-ups.

It's not quite the "golden generation" but after a few largely fallow years, it is heartening to see youngsters making the step up to the first-team squad and being given a chance by the coaching staff – and not just because of how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted football in Scotland.

It’s worth remembering that while there are a number of players who either graduated from, or spent most of their formative years in the Hibs Academy currently playing in Scotland's top four divisions - which the Easter Road side will count as a success – it's the number of individuals in or around the current first-team squad that really is cause for celebration.

The visit of Rangers next week will provide a much sterner test than Hibs have faced so far but it is hard to see a repeat of the capitulation at Ibrox in August last year when the Gers scored six and the Easter Road side finished with ten men after Sean Mackie's red card.

After a ramshackle second half against Aberdeen, Hibs were back to their cohesive, free-flowing best at times against St Mirren. It was a far better performance than the last two or three matches before the international break, from front to back.

In recent seasons, Hibs have struggled with putting away so-called “bottom-six" teams and winning ugly. In just seven games this season, there have been signs that Jack Ross has eradicated the soft touch that has so often come back to haunt the team.

It might be fanciful to suggest Hibs can keep up this sort of form all season but there is no reason why they cannot maintain this upward trajectory and finish in the upper echelons of the Scottish Premiership.

If Hibs can keep on grinding out results in matches that they would have previously lost or drawn and are more able to compete with the likes of Celtic, Rangers, and Aberdeen then a good season should be in the offing.

The match against the Dons before the international break was viewed as something of a litmus test but in some ways the match against Rangers will be more indicative of where Hibs stand this season.

Can they compete with one of the two teams traditionally challenging for the title? Can they trouble a defence that hasn't been breached by seven different opponents? Can they repel a team that has scored 15 goals so far this season?

A lot will be made this week about Rangers' personnel concerns after four players sustained injuries on Saturday, and whether or not it forces the club's hand in the transfer market before Sunday's trip to Edinburgh.

Provided Hibs can shut out the noise and focus on their own preparations - as they did in the midst of St Mirren's coronavirus-fuelled goalkeeper crisis - then they have every chance of taking another step forward this weekend.