It wasn’t only Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs who was asking questions of his players in the wake of last Monday’s defeat by Championship rivals Rangers, which had brought the Easter Road outfit’s 17-match unbeaten run to an end.
All eyes were on them at the weekend, the thoughts of many being that the Capital side had suffered a fatal blow to their title hopes with the 4-2 loss at Ibrox.
However, as Stubbs’ players have shown more than once this season, this is a very different animal to that which once meekly capitulated in the face of adversity.
True, Saturday’s victory over Raith Rovers was by the narrowest of margins, top scorer Jason Cummings alert enough to steer the rebound home after goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert had saved his penalty, the Kirkcaldy club’s No.1 sending a shiver down the spine of each of the 10,303 Hibs fans in attendance as he got a hand to the 20-year-old’s second attempt before the ball crept over the line.
But clinching the three points, no matter how, was the only objective as far as Stubbs was concerned, Raith having posed a serious question as they made life tough for Hibs, rarely creating a threat themselves but ensuring clear-cut chances for the opposition were few and far between.
Cummings’ 16th goal of the season may not have been his most convincing finish but it was the culmination of a clever pass from Liam Henderson meeting the striker’s run, halted by the challenge of Rovers’ defender Kyle Benedictus, a clear penalty as his boss Ray McKinnon readily admitted.
It was, though, in Stubbs’ judgment sufficient reward for his players’ efforts.
“All credit to Ray and his team,” he conceded. “They made it really difficult for us.
“But I don’t think anyone could deny us the victory. I thought we were always on the front foot.
“We probably rushed things a little bit and made a couple of wrong decisions, more so in the first half. However, the most important thing is the win.
“I think a lot of people would have been looking at our game and seeing how we responded to last week’s defeat. I think we answered that.
“Raith got behind the ball, worked really hard as a team but we created a few chances without taking them and the longer it goes a little bit more anxiety can creep in. But the lads stuck to doing the right things, getting into some good areas and the goal is a great bit of play.
“It wasn’t Jason’s best afternoon but look at his movement and awareness for the goal, that’s why he is hot property.”
Perhaps understandably, Hibs had looked a little flat in the opening 45 minutes, the home fans rather subdued as Stubbs’ players toiled against a Raith side badly depleted by injury, Iain Davidson and Mark Stewart calling off ill on the day to add to the problems of McKinnon, who was already without key players such as Jason Thomson, Lewis Toshney and Lewis Vaughan – among others.
So threadbare was his squad, former Hibs midfielder Scott Robertson was deployed at right back, his manager admitting: “Robbo will never be a right back in his life but my players rose to the occasion. I got everything out of them.
“We lack the quality of Hibs, no doubt about that, but we were organised, diligent and, while I was disappointed with the result, I couldn’t ask any more from my players.”
Stubbs, though, did have one question to ask his team at half-time. And, although he insisted no hard words were spoken, he was equally adamant the conversation would remain private, prepared only to say: “I put a question to them and again, as with most things, they have answered me.”
It would come as little surprise, however, if you were to learn the question was simply how much desire did they have to stay in the title chase, one which has become a three-horse race with Falkirk’s credentials rising with each passing week, the Bairns retaining second place on goal difference as they enjoyed an equally-narrow win away to basement side Alloa Athletic. While Cummings’ goal was all that separated Hibs and Raith – who meet again on Saturday at Stark’s Park in the Scottish Cup – it was a comfortable win for the Edinburgh club, their seventh 1-0 victory of the season underlining the resilience and determination of this squad, a quality which many would admit was singularly lacking in years gone by.
There will, however, be a little concern at Hibs’ cutting edge being a bit blunt at the moment, just six goals scored in their last five matches, a statistic highlighted by Rangers’ 6-0 thrashing of Dumbarton, Stubbs’ side having the poorest of goal differences of the top three teams with the Ibrox club having netted almost twice as many times.
To that end, Stubbs believes his options up front will have increased by the time these two sides meet again in a few days, red tape holding up the registration of former Leyton Orient hitman Chris Dagnall, who is already in Edinburgh, his contract with Indian Super League side Kerala Blasters now at an end.
Stubbs said: “We are just waiting on one piece of paper, it may already be with us but I would think it will be ready this week at some point.
“Fitness wise, Chris isn’t too far away. He trained with us last week and he was fine although he probably needed a little bit just to get up to speed. But he will be in the squad and available for the ‘Holy Grail’.”
While 29-year-old Dagnall – top scorer at Orient last season – will be welcome, it’s the immediate future of Cummings which will be of concern to Hibs fans, bracing themselves for all those clubs said to be interested in the youngster.
Stubbs, though, remains sanguine about the situation well aware there’s nothing he can do to dampen speculation or prevent others making a move.
He said: “We will see what happens. Nothing has changed from what I’ve said in the past week. Jason is very good, he is learning and the time and improving. I still think he has quite a bit to go but he could be very good.”