Hibs have little room for error in play-off scrap

Queen of the South goalkeeper Zander Clark punches clear. Pic: Jane Barlow
Queen of the South goalkeeper Zander Clark punches clear. Pic: Jane Barlow
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A FORTNIGHT ago, Hibs had the chance to all but nail second place in the Championship. Today, after three successive defeats, the runners-up spot looks far from certain with the probability now being that Alan Stubbs’ players will face the extended play-off programme they had hoped to avoid.

Rangers’ 2-1 victory over Hearts at Ibrox yesterday moved Stuart McCall’s men three points ahead of Hibs with a game in hand, making them clear favourites to secure second place. And the knowledge an extra play-off double-header will be against either Falkirk or Queen of the South will undoubtedly cause more than a little nervousness among the Easter Road support, Hibs having taken just one point from three clashes with the Bairns and, after this latest setback, just one win in four attempts against the Dumfries outfit.

Mark Durnan, Queens’ matchwinner, admitted as much, saying: “We’ve played Hibs four times, won two, drawn one, lost one and kept three clean sheets so we know we can and will compete.”

Durnan, though, fully expects Hibs to clinch a play-off place with some comfort despite their advantage over his side having been cut to five points while Falkirk are now only three behind albeit having played one game more.

He said : “I am sure they will still be trying to pick up and get a few wins for second.

“I don’t think they’ll be looking behind them and I think they will make the play-offs quite comfortably.”

However, with only five matches still to be played, it’s clear there’s little room for error, the pressure now on Hibs to travel to Dumbarton on Wednesday night and return with all three points.

Stubbs will be looking for his players to recapture the spark he’d detected within them despite losing to Raith Rovers, describing that performance as their best in some six weeks.

Having said that, the head coach would have been disappointed at the lack of tempo, zest and energy in the opening 45 minutes against Queens, a side which, like them, had gone into this game on the back of two defeats.

And that, as James Fowler admitted, suited their visitors immensely, the Doonhamers manager saying: “We’d spoken about it, coming here knowing they had lost their last couple of games as well, of trying to quieten the crowd and getting them on their back if things weren’t going their way early on.”

With Hibs in a timid, tentative mood, Queens were allowed to settle and take a grip on the game, the threat of Keith Watson and Lewis Stevenson stifled as the full backs were prevented from getting forward with great effect as they had done during that run of 15 matches unbeaten.

As a result, Hibs were too narrow in the middle of the park, forced to play the ball across the pitch by a well-organised Queens defence which allowed little space for that killer pass to be played.

And the home side twice avoided the loss of a goal before half-time, goalkeeper Mark Oxley standing tall to block Gavin Reilly’s shot after he’d got goal-side of Paul Hanlon, the defender redeeming himself by sliding in to take Derek Lyle’s lofted effort from the rebound off his own line.

It was Oxley to the rescue again, the on-loan Hull City man throwing himself spectacularly high to his left to claw away Lyle’s rising shot.

Two minutes after the restart, however, Oxley was beaten. Kevin Holt latched onto what was no more than a high, hopeful ball from Lyle and, as he was challenged as he charged into Hibs penalty area, it broke for Durnan, who admitted he was surprised at the time he had to turn and rifle a shot into the roof of the net from only six yards.

That goal gave Queens something to hang onto, the Palmerston Park outfit happy to take time off the clock at every opportunity as, finally, Stubbs players began to up their game. The introduction of Farid El Alagui gave Hibs a physical presence they’d sadly lacked in the first half with Dominique Malonga very much on the periphery of the action as was teenager Jason Cummings.

The sight of Cummings making way for El Alagui, however, didn’t meet with universal approval, supporters clearly signalling their displeasure as they possibly felt it should have been Malonga being removed.

Stubbs said: “I thought we looked more of a threat with Farid, more of a physical presence. I am here to make decisions and I will make them.”

If Queens goalkeeper Zander Clark had been something of a spectator in those opening 45 minutes, his only moment of concern being a Keith Watson cross which zipped across his six-yard line only to apparently catch Malonga on his heels with the goal gaping, he played his part in ensuring victory. An inswinging Scott Allan cross which threatened to creep under his crossbar was fisted away as was a precise header from Malonga which appeared destined for the top corner.

Hibs ended the match with three strikers, Franck Dja Djedje replacing Fraser Fyvie, in a desperate bid for at least an equaliser, Oxley joining them up front for a last-minute corner from which Dja Djedje was convinced his close-range shot had been blocked by a Queens hand.

As a defender himself, Liam Fontaine, captain for the day with Liam Craig again on the bench and David Gray ruled out for weeks with a hamstring injury, appreciated the efforts of the opposition as they battled to hold onto their slender lead,

“They had a good set-up,” he said. “It was hard to break them down. But we didn’t really get going until they scored a goal but then, I think, you could see it was all us and they had to defend as they did.”

However, Fontaine, who has experience of the pressures of play-offs having gone all the way to the English Championship final with Bristol City only to be denied promotion to the top flight by Hull City, backed his team-mates to put these setbacks behind them and be ready to enter the extended season with positive mindsets and results.

He said: “I wouldn’t say we have been playing badly. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s goals that change games. If we’d scored in the first half against Raith as we should have, we’d probably have gone on and won.”

Fontaine understood completely the frustration of the home support, who vented their feelings on the final whistle but, he insisted, that came from the expectation which that long unbeaten run had brought.

He said: “They’ve been used to seeing us winning games but they’ve been great all season and they can help push as along. I don’t think the expectation is affecting the players because that’s been there since day one. We had a slow start to the season but the expectation was there. Then we got on that run but the expectation has never changed and, just because we have had a few results, that doesn’t mean it affects us. It does not.”