Being six points adrift of pre-season title favourites Rangers after just three games of the Championship season was certainly not part of the plan for a Hibs side who hoped to hit the ground running and capitalise on any sluggishness in their rivals’ ranks following a summer of transition at Ibrox.
The unplanned departure of talisman Scott Allan, however, allied to the unavailability or shortage of fitness of the likes of John McGinn, Liam Henderson, Dan Carmichael, James Keatings, Martin Boyle and Dylan McGeouch for the early competitive games of the season, has done little to aid the Easter Road side’s cause thus far. Neither has the fact Rangers and their raft of new signings have enjoyed a more rousing start than anticipated under Mark Warburton.
Yet, despite the disappointment at the way the past month or so has panned out for Hibs, it was evident in the wake of Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Ibrox that no-one is panicking. Last season, they trailed Rangers by ten points in December – 15 games into the campaign – and still came back to pip them to second place. Although the Glasgow side look to be made of stronger stuff this season, there is genuine belief in the Hibs camp, heightened by their performance on Sunday in a game that could have gone either way, that they can still win the title.
“It’s far too early to be talking about how the league’s going to look at the end of the season,” defender Paul Hanlon told the Evening News. “We’re definitely not out of the title race, though. It’s far too early to be talking about that. We know we can’t afford any more slip-ups because we’re six points behind Rangers already, but we were well behind them a lot further into the season last year and we still finished ahead of them. No-one’s really thinking that far forward at this stage, though.”
Prior to Sunday, Hibs had been cast as no-hopers in some quarters with regard to their prospects of winning the title after the 6-2 Petrofac Training Cup defeat by Rangers last month, an underwhelming start to the league campaign and the departure of Allan contrived to let the early-summer optimism disappear from Easter Road. However, head coach Alan Stubbs was adamant that the performance at Ibrox, in which Hibs were let down by big misses while the game was goalless, proved there is little between the teams. Hanlon echoed those sentiments and insists his team looked just as likely to win the game prior to James Tavernier’s brilliantly-struck free-kick that won the match for the Gers.
“We got exactly what we expected from Rangers,” said Hanlon. “They’re good at keeping the ball and they attack a lot through their full-backs, but we countered them pretty well and created a lot of chances. We’re confident in our own ability and we know on our day we’re a match for anybody in this league. We showed that at Ibrox. We’re certainly not scared of them or anything like that. The only difference between the teams was the free-kick. It’s disappointing but there’s plenty positives we can take from it.”
With Rangers backed by a pumped-up, sold-out Ibrox crowd, Hibs, given their early-season trials and tribulations, could easily have wilted. However, for long periods of Sunday’s match, the visitors looked just as comfortable as they had done during their two league victories there last season.
“Their crowd is not something you really think about as a player,” said Hanlon, who was arguably Hibs’ top performer. “It’s just a case of concentrating on yourself and your opponents and focusing on the game. It was just frustrating that we lost because of the chances we created. At times our game-plan worked great. We did some good counter-attacking on them, sitting in at times then bursting with pace down the wings and through the middle. It worked well a lot of times but we didn’t take our chances.
“I think we limited them to just a few chances. We felt solid and compact. You’ve got to be solid when you go to Ibrox. You can’t go there and be wide open because they’ve got players who can hurt you. I felt we limited their chances, but we were hit by a good free-kick.
“Losing David Gray [to injury] at the start of the second half wasn’t great but Dylan [McGeouch] filled in well in a position he’s not used to. If we had got the goal before they scored we would have had enough about us to hold on. Overall we had the better chances in the game but at the end of the day you’ve got to take them.”
Adding further to Hibs’ sense of frustration at coming home pointless was the feeling that the free-kick from which Tavernier scored, for handball by McGeouch, should never have been awarded. “I think the free-kick was a bit harsh,” said Hanlon. “It looked like the boy kicked it off Dylan’s leg from a yard away and then it went on to his hand. If you can react to that and pull your hand away, you’re doing well. We’ve just got to take it on the chin.”
For all the disappointment, though, there is now renewed optimism that Hibs are equipped to finally ignite this season. There was a clear increase in resolve and fitness levels compared to the 6-2 game four weeks previously, and with new striker James Keatings getting closer to making his debut and the prospect of more new arrivals this week, Hanlon is adamant his team are only going to get better in the coming weeks.
“I think Sunday was a far better reflection of what we’re capable of than the Petrofac Cup game,” he said. “We’ll get even stronger as well because we had a few boys in the team who either missed pre-season or joined us late. We’ll get stronger as everyone gets fitter. We’re just focusing on taking the confidence from our performance into our next game and making sure we start taking the chances we’re creating. We’ve got Stranraer in the League Cup [tomorrow] and we want to progress in that.”
On-loan Celtic midfielder Henderson made a big impression in his first start for Hibs. The teenager was his team’s standout player in the first half and then spurned two good chances – one at 0-0 and another at 1-0 – in the second half. Hanlon is expecting big things from the youngster.
“Liam’s got loads of ability,” he said. “He was devastated at the chances he missed but he’ll be stronger for that and he’ll be a massive player for us this season. You can see the ability he’s got and he works hard for the team as well. He was really driving us forward at times. He’s got ability, vision, pace and strength – everything you need for a midfield player. It’s exciting to see how good he can get for Hibs this year.”