Why Hibs' fortunes will improve imminently even if 'big game' test comes too soon

Even if Hibs play well this weekend, there’s still a strong possibility they’ll finish the game on the losing side. It’s not a particularly optimistic outlook two days before the big game, but it’s just the fact of the matter.

By Craig Fowler
Friday, 19th November 2021, 7:30 am
Updated Friday, 19th November 2021, 10:31 am
Kyle Magennis and Christian Doidge are soon expected back for Hibs after periods of time out through injury. Picture: SNS

Rangers may well have taken on the mantra of cup underachievers across the last, well, ten years – and Sunday’s encounter will either be led by a four-man interim caretaker committee or a foreign boss in Giovanni van Bronckhorst getting his first taste of Scottish football since leaving as a player in 2001 – but they’re still the reigning champions and still have the best squad in the country.

Unfortunately, such caveats likely won’t save Jack Ross from criticism come Monday. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perspective among the Easter Road support that the manager struggles to win the “big games”, a theory fuelled by three disappointments at the national stadium last term, losing to local rivals Hearts in the rearranged Scottish Cup semi-final from 2019/20 before suffering heartbreak to St Johnstone in both the League Cup semi-final and 2021 Scottish Cup final.

The Rangers managerial transition will pour a little more petrol on that fire, which is already roaring after a run of four consecutive defeats before a Covid-19 outbreak suddenly shut the team down for a couple of weeks prior to the international break.

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Though the enforced and elongated absence will be another disadvantage for Hibs heading into the cup semi, it did give time for a couple of immensely important players to return to the first-team set-up. Whether or not they’ll start in Mount Florida remains to be seen, but both Kyle Magennis and Christian Doidge are back in full training and will give this flagging side a significant boost soon enough.

Patience is the worst thing to ask of football fans. It’s like saying “calm down” to your significant other: it’s not going to get the desired effect and you’re more likely just to annoy them more. But Hibs fans might just need patient to be for the moment.

Ross isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Steve Kean was unveiled as the club’s new academy director on Tuesday and neither the new man nor the club made any effort to hide the fact it was the first-team manager who identified him as the ideal candidate. If the Hibs hierarchy had any doubts about Ross as the man to lead them forward, they likely wouldn’t have hired someone for such a key role where one of the advantages is that he already has a strong professional relationship with the man in the dugout.

Things will almost certainly improve in the coming weeks, even if it won’t necessarily feel like that after Sunday. It should be remembered Hibs were flying before a combination of injuries and suspensions took the wind out of their sails. Unbeaten in domestic football with a record of one defeat in 13 matches all season, they were set to go top of the cinch Premiership when leading 1-0 at Ibrox in early October. That’s when Ryan Porteous was sent off for a rash challenge on Rangers midfielder Joe Aribo and things immediately took a turn for the worse. They lost that match 2-1 and haven’t found victory since.

Having Doidge out was bad enough. The striker is such an impactful player and Hibs often function better as a team when he’s in it. Excellent in the air, he makes up for his lack of speed and quickness with intelligent movement around the final third and ability to link play with supporting midfielders. But also losing both Kyle Magennis, who was forced off the week before the Ibrox loss, and Porteous was too much for the starting XI to handle.

Martin Boyle is the X-factor and probably Hibs’ most important player, but these three have become immensely valuable to the way the team operates. Essentially, they’re the linking parts which brings the whole thing together.

Porteous, while still raw at times in his defensive duties, is excellent for a centre-back at carrying the ball out from the back and passing it forward. He gives the team the platform to build effectively from the back and provides a reliable passage between defence and midfield.

Magennis, who was an afterthought for much of last term, has emerged as a real star in this team and has been their best midfielder (not counting Boyle) to begin this season. He provides consistent, top-drawer deliveries into the penalty area with his set-pieces, while his movement and creative streak, not to mention a handy goal touch, make him a multi-tooled threat as a No.10. He bridges the gap between midfield and forward line, while it’s no coincidence both Joe Newell and Jake Doyle-Hayes have dropped off a cliff without Magennis ahead of them.

Then there’s Doidge. With the attributes we’ve already mentioned, he’s the perfect foil for last season’s top scorer Kevin Nisbet. Once again, it’s probably not a coincidence the Scottish international’s performances have taken a significant downturn without his partner-in-crime opening up space for him in attack. He provides links all over the park as an effective out-ball when the preferred avenues are shut down.

Whether Magennis and Doidge are fit enough to play from the outset against Rangers remains to be seen. If they are, Hibs have a more than a punter’s chance of banishing a horrible October and early November with a victory which will live long in the hearts and minds of supporters. If they aren’t, at least it won’t be too much longer before they’re back among the starting XI and the club gets itself back on course in the race for European football.

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