A month ago it looked all over for Hibs, a defeat by Rangers which ended a 15-match unbeaten run and prompted a mini-collapse as they lost to Raith Rovers and Queen of the South appeared to end all hopes of finishing second in the Championship.
Instead of moving nine points clear of the Ibrox outfit that day, Alan Stubbs’ players suddenly found themselves trailing their rivals, naturally prompting questions once again regarding the Easter Road side’s “bottle,” or rather, their lack of it.
The doubters were answered by victories over Dumbarton and champions Hearts only to follow another setback, that soul-destroying Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Falkirk.
Once again, though, Hibs displayed their resilience, bouncing back with emphatic wins over Livingston and now Alloa Athletic, four league wins on the spin which Stuart McCall’s men have been unable to match.
But nothing will be settled until the final day of the regular season, Hibs travelling to what many perceive to be their bogey team Falkirk, while Rangers make the trip to Tynecastle for Hearts’ title party.
And despite Hibs’ 4-1 victory against Alloa while Rangers scrambled a 2-2 draw at home to Falkirk, both teams will be going for one thing this weekend – a win.
Hibs have a slender advantage, ahead by a point and a superior goal difference. If they do get three points they will finish as runners-up and so reduce the number of play-off games by two.
And, despite the Bairns having twice beaten Hibs in the league, not to mention coming back from 3-1 down to claim a draw at Easter Road, and that semi-final win, Hibs skipper Liam Craig firmly believes he and his team-mates have what it takes to finally get the better of his old club. The midfielder said: “Although we were obviously disappointed to lose the game [the semi-final] we were happy with the way we played. We were unfortunate and a lot was said afterwards, but we’ve scored seven in the two games since and we’ll be looking to add to that on Saturday.
“It’s not a case of ‘owing them one’, we know what we want to do this season and we know what we can achieve as a group.
“We have to go to Falkirk and win, we are capable of winning games and if we can perform as we have in our last three games we know we have a great chance of winning.”
Falkirk, of course, will have a say in that, although Peter Houston’s side failed in their last push for a play-off place, forced to settle for a point at Ibrox despite having been two goals up as Queen of the South clinched the final spot with a win against Dumbarton.
There is, however, a determination among Stubbs’ players to finish the job off as Craig confirmed: “We knew after the Livingston game we had to win the two after it and that’s what we’ve set out to do. If we were to do that and were still not in the top two then there was not much more we could do.
“Nothing has changed, we just concentrate on ourselves, going to Falkirk and winning. If we take care of business it doesn’t matter what Rangers do and it’s great going into the game knowing that. We want to go into the play-offs on the back of three wins.”
While victories over two relegation-threatened sides may appear little more than routine, Stubbs was well aware of the dangers posed by Livingston and Alloa, the Wasps now foot of the table on goal difference from the Lions with the final day of the season at that end looking just as intriguing.
The determination to ensure that having won against Livingston there would be no slip-up in what was Hibs’ third match in seven days – a schedule which saw Fraser Fyvie and Dylan McGeouch rested as they nurse slight knocks and Farid El Alagui spend the afternoon on the bench – was evident from the first whistle.
Stubbs had tweaked his formation, abandoning the 3-5-2 in favour of a 4-3-3 which, in effect, became a 2-4-4 with Paul Hanlon and Liam Fontaine looking after Alloa’s loan striker Liam Buchanan to allow full-backs Jordon Forster and Lewis Stevenson to bomb forward at every opportunity.
Michael Doyle and Iain Flannigan both made goal-line clearances from Jason Cummings and Forster respectively as Alloa found themselves pinned down inside their own half but it took Hibs until the 31st minute to break the deadlock, Martin Boyle, celebrating his 22nd birthday by clipping a shot into the far corner before Craig added a second with a thundering shot which flew into the top corner of the net.
“We always knew we’d have to be patient,” insisted Stubbs, “A good result for Alloa would have been picking up a point, all three would have been brilliant for them especially with the way other results went so we knew it was going to be difficult. But as soon as the whistle went we were really positive. I wanted them to take the game to Alloa with the formation we went with and to put them under as much pressure as we could.”
Cummings put the game beyond doubt, tapping home his 19th goal of the season after Dominique Malonga unselfishly squared the ball to him after Scott Allan, as he did for all four Hibs strikes, initiated the move.
Flannigan gave the 90 Wasps fans in attendance something to shout about as he bundled the ball home after Mark Docherty’s cross had cleared the head of Fontaine but Malonga restored Hibs’ three-goal lead, left with the easiest of opportunities as Forster guided Allan’s cross down to his feet six yards out.
While Hibs’ performance was a cause for satisfaction, on a personal level Craig was probably even happier, the 28-year-old making only his second start in seven games and scoring only his third goal of the season although he could quite easily have been celebrating another, a shot crashing back off the inside of the post.
He said: “It was a great feeling to score, but first and foremost just to get into the team.
“I’ve had to be patient because we have a great squad with a lot of good midfielders.
“But we’ve always said if we were going to be successful it was going to take a squad, especially at this stage of the season when there’s a lot of midweek games in addition to a Saturday.”