Michael O'Connor: How Hibs trialist fared in reserve team win over Celtic

Linfield striker started in development squad's 1-0 win over Celtic at East Mains - and didn't do his chances any harm

Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 5:01 pm
Updated Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 5:16 pm
Michael O'Connor looks to get the better of Celtic midfielder Barry Coffey
Michael O'Connor looks to get the better of Celtic midfielder Barry Coffey

Hibs were granted permission to play Linfield striker Michael O'Connor as a trialist in their reserve friendly match with Celtic at East Mains on Tuesday, with the former Ireland Under-19 international named alongside Oli Shaw in attack.

The 21-year-old appears to have been handed an extended chance to impress after initially arriving on a week-long trial last month and enjoyed his first-half tussle with Jack Hendry as the two teams played out an enjoyable, balanced first 45.

O'Connor won a good number of his aerial battles with the former Dundee defender, and more often than not found a team-mate with a headed pass.

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He had a couple of half-chances in the opening period, one an instinctive first-time effort from the left side of the area, the other a low cross to the edge of the six-yard box that got caught under his feet as the Celtic defence closed him down.

O'Connor, who scored six goals and registered one assist during a 15-game loan spell at Waterford during the 2019 League of Ireland season, put himself about well throughout the game, with some members of the Celtic defence voicing their displeasure to the referee at the player's physicality.

The young Irishman didn't always choose the safest option with his distribution, sometimes risking passes that, had they come off, could have launched an attack. Although his aerial ability is a clear strength, he was comfortable with the ball at his feet as well.

O'Connor enjoyed a better second half, in front of caretaker management team Eddie May, Grant Murray and Steven Whittaker, as Hibs pushed for a goal. On several occasions he was well placed in the penalty area at dead ball situations but the Celtic defence marshalled him well to prevent him from capitalising on the balls being whipped in by Gullan and Ben Stirling.

As the game wore on, O'Connor started dropping deeper to pick up the ball, and feed it out to substitute Ryan Shanley on the left, or Gullan and overlapping full-back Stirling on the right.

The striker would have been keen to cap his performance with a goal, and he should have had one midway through the second half but he somehow sent his header from Stirling's cross spiralling over the crossbar.

His overall performance was positive and he seemed comfortable dropping deep, and leading the line. He used the ball well and was rarely wasteful in possession as well as being a handful for the opposing defence.

Gullan on the rise

Hibs fans have only had fleeting glimpses of attacker Jamie Gullan since the player dubbed "Hammer" made his first-team debut under Neil Lennon in the 6-4 Europa League qualifying win over NSI Runavik in the Faroes. The 20-year-old has been in fine form for Hibs development team, and joined Raith Rovers on loan in the second half of last season, scoring once.

He rejoined the Stark's Park side on a similar deal until January. In nine games for John McGlynn's side he has already scored three and laid on two more for his team-mates.

As a result, Gullan - who has tended to play as a No.10 or supporting striker for Raith - looks far more confident and assured in his performances for Lee Makel's side. He came close with a fine free-kick against Celtic on Tuesday, and put in a tireless shift wide left in the first half and more centrally as a No.10 in the second period.

With his loan deal up in January, could the forward get more chances in the Easter Road first team come 2020?

Formation change?

Often, the Hibs development squad has mirrored the formation and tactics used by the first team. In the recent Reserve Cup clash with Hearts at Meggetland, Shaw started as a lone striker with Gullan, Campbell and Fraser Murray as the attacking trio and Stirling and Innes Murray in the holding roles in a 4-2-3-1, aping the preferred formation of Paul Heckingbottom.

However, Heckingbottom changed his tactics and formation in the second half of the matches against Livingston and Celtic, switching to a 4-4-2 diamond at Hampden. There was a marked improvement in the side with two strikers on the park and a narrower midfield, while many fans have been calling for two up front for some time.

It remains to be seen which formation the first team play during Saturday's match at St Johnstone, but the return of Martin Boyle gives options, and Vykintas Slivka's second-half run-out against Celtic may see him restored to the starting line-up as one of two central midfielders along with Stevie Mallan in a 4-4-2 diamond with Melker Hallberg as the No.6 and Scott Allan at No.10.

Either way, it seems that the formation and tactics will be different on Saturday - if the development squad is anything to go by.