Hibs will tomorrow return to the scene of this season’s watershed moment.
Back on September 20, Alan Stubbs’ side fell to a limp 1-0 defeat away to Queen of the South. It was their fourth loss from their opening six Championship fixtures and left them hovering just a point above the relegation play-off spot.
At that point, with confidence low, new players still settling in and a lingering sense of unease among a fanbase and squad still affected by relegation a few months previously, another battle against the drop was starting to look more likely than a promotion push.
Amid the exasperation, however, Stubbs kept his cool and managed to spark an upturn in the wake of that Dumfries nadir. Remarkably, considering the predicament they were in on that grim September weekend, Hibs head back to Palmerston tomorrow having lost only one of their 15 league matches since their last visit. In the intervening four months, only runaway leaders Hearts have collected more points than the resurgent Hibees, who have motored up to third in the table.
Scott Robertson, one of only five members of the starting XI from the last game likely to begin tomorrow’s match, believes Queens will have to be prepared to welcome a far more sure-footed Hibs side into their manor this time round. “It’s pretty impressive that we’ve only lost one game since then because that game seems so long ago,” the midfielder said. “We’re not the finished article yet, as the Falkirk game a few weeks ago shows, but we were certainly a work in progress back then.
“The last time we went down there, we didn’t have any consistency in our play or our team selection. We had a couple of injuries and the manager was still trying to find the right balance of being a team that could defend solidly and cause other teams problems at the same time. We’re definitely a stronger team now than we were back then. I think we’ll certainly give them more of a contest this time because I don’t think we had a shot on target back then.”
One of the main reasons behind the post-Palmerston revival appears to have been Stubbs’ change of tact. Frustrated by his side’s inability to attack and defend effectively in unison after the defeat at Queens, the head coach made the decision to sacrifice wingers and consolidate midfield.
For the League Cup trip to Ross County three days later, Stubbs sent out a 3-5-2 formation aimed at ensuring greater control of the central area and was rewarded with a 2-0 win over the Premiership side. When centre-half Jordon Forster got injured in early October, meaning three at the back had to be shelved, a central-midfield diamond was introduced to similarly good effect. Wingers have remained conspicuous by their absence in the starting line-up ever since Matty Kennedy and Sam Stanton occupied the flanks at Palmerston.
Robertson believes the current formation suits Hibs, who have an array of reputable central midfielders, perfectly. “We’ve got a way of playing that gets the best out of the players we’ve got and I don’t think we had that the last time we went to Queen of the South,” he said. “We’ve been able to play without wingers because we’ve got good attacking full-backs in Lewis Stevenson, David Gray and Callum Booth, who get forward and give us width. That’s allowed us to play extra players in midfield. Having four central midfielders helps us control games and allows us to retain the ball.
“There are always going to be spells in matches when the other team gets the upper hand, but we’ve generally been pretty good at controlling large spells of games.”
Hibs’ improvement has been particularly evident on their travels, with seven wins from their nine away games since their last venture to Palmerston. Despite this, Robertson, pictured, is braced for a formidable test against a Queens side who have won seven of their ten home matches this season and sit just three points behind the Easter Road outfit with a game in hand.
“Even though we’ve improved, it’ll still be a hard game,” he said. “Most teams struggle down there. I know Hearts won 3-0 but by all accounts that game wasn’t as easy as the scoreline suggests. We’ve been good away from home, though. When we play away, teams feel they have to come at us more, which opens them up. That’s when we’re at our best, when teams leave themselves more exposed against us.”