The one player who epitomises the turnaround at Hibs

Joe Newell has shone in a revitalised Easter Road squad

Sunday, 1st December 2019, 4:00 pm
Joe Newell battles Kilmarnock's Chris Burke for possession. Picture: SNS

Saturday’s game ended in a frustratingly familiar manner. It wasn't just that Hibs conceded two points with a goal scored with the last kick of the game, it was that this outcome had looked likely to happen as soon as Alex Bruce - one of two Killie centre-backs to score on the day - pulled one back for the previously beleaguered visitors.

Prior to the veteran defender blasting beyond Chris Maxwell after Ryan Porteous had blocked the initial effort on the line, Hibs had absolutely dominated the match. Killie hadn't mustered a shot in the first 45 minutes while their defence, which is one of the best in the league, was pulled each way and every way by the Hibs attack. Had the home side been up 4-0 by the time Bruce struck, there could have been no complaints.

The momentum turned massively with the goal. Killie got their act together, as they were finally able to control and pass the ball at a functional level, while Hibs visibly tired as the game went on.

Sign up to our Hibs football newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

All these factors contributed to the crowd getting very antsy as the match drew to a close. A short, sharp boo greeted the full-time whistle. This was a cathartic release after frustration manifested itself into anger when their fears were released with Fabio Del Fabro netting at the death.

However, the jeers quickly died as the team were instead applauded for their efforts. It may not have been three points, but a draw against Killie is no embarrassing result. It was still a markedly improved performance from the type of football witnessed at Easter Road earlier in the campaign, and the fans, in spite of their emotions, recognised that fact.

Paul Heckingbottom wasn’t someone who was unpopular in the Easter Road dressing room. Even Martin Bartley, a player jettisoned by the coach in the summer, speaks well of the former Hibs manager. His biggest problem was his attention to detail. There was too much of it. He was overly meticulous with the players and they played like a side too concerned with positioning and shape to be truly expressive on the park.

Since Heckingbottom‘s exit they’ve attacked like a team that’s had the leash removed. Several players, most of whom were Heckingbottom signings, have improved tremendously over the short period. The most notable is Christian Doidge, who has scored six goals in four games after failing to find the back of the net once in the league under the stewardship of the man who paid £350,000 to bring him north. However, while Doidge’s raw numbers stand out, he’s mostly the same player he was under Jack Ross’ predecessor. He’s simply putting away the chances he missed earlier in the campaign.

No, the player who truly epitomises the turnaround this team is Joe Newell, the midfielder who’s started on the left of the diamond in each of the past four games.

It looked like the player’s Easter Road career was heading to an inevitable conclusion earlier in the campaign. Used almost exclusively on the left wing by Heckingbottom, Newell looked entirely devoid of confidence in the role. He often seemed to hide from the action and barely got involved in matches. As his appearances became more sporadic, especially with the impending return of Martin Boyle from injury and the signing of Glenn Middleton, it appeared likely he’d be soon heading back out the door in January or next summer having failed to make any sort of impact.

Instead, he’s been excellent these last few weeks. In fairness to Newell for his early season performances, he did say that playing on the wing wasn’t his preferred position, even if it’s one he’s played regularly in the past.

He sees himself as a centre-midfielder and it’s easy to see why. Operating in the congested centre enables him to move intelligently off the ball, demonstrating imagination and creatively to get into pockets of space. His range of passing, as demonstrating by his set-piece taking, is another strong point of his game. He could have had an assist over 80 yards from goal yesterday when he calmly picked up the ball outside the Hibs box and dropped in a perfectly-weighted through pass for Doidge to run on to. The striker would bear down on the Killie box before firing right at the goalkeeper.

Furthermore, there’s a bit of the Ryan Christie’s in him with regards to his energy off the ball and ability to win back possession deep in the opponents’ half. Even though he’s built like a winger there’s a certain tenacity to his game which belies his slim frame.

He’s still got another level to reach if he improves his product in front of goal. Newell had four shooting chances against Killie but failed to make the most of any of them. Once he gets one, don’t be too surprised to see his confidence shoot up in this aspect of his game also.

If he can add a scoring touch then he’ll have gone from looking like a dud signing to becoming one of the first names on the team-sheet, as Hibs go from looking like relegation battlers to a solid top-six outfit.