Why manner of Hibs victory over St Johnstone was best possible outcome ahead of Edinburgh derby
There was a sense of relief underpinning the roar that greeted Hibs’ winner against St Johnstone in the Perthshire sun at McDiarmid Park on Saturday, along with the usual jubilation that comes with celebrating your team scoring a goal.
It was three points, of course, and no one really minded too much whether it had been Rocky Bushiri, Josh Campbell, or Cammy MacPherson who got the last touch on the ball before it crossed the line; all that mattered was that Hibs’ sustained pressure had borne fruit.
Élie Youan had headed over early in the second half after Ewan Henderson and Jair Tavares had missed presentable chances in the first period. Murray Davidson’s sending-off shortly before the hour mark gave Hibs an obvious advantage in terms of numbers but as Campbell pointed out afterwards, it is sometimes harder playing against a dogged ten-man team with their backs against the wall and a metaphorical bus parked in front of their goal-line.
There were a lot of positives for Hibs from the game and the performance – not all of them immediately obvious.
A win for Johnson
It would be fair to say there wasn’t widespread support for Lee Johnson when he was appointed the new Hibs manager given his brief stint at Tynecastle during his playing days and the perception that he wasn’t a big name or an attractive prospect. The mood softened thanks to some of his early summer signings but the disastrous Premier Sports Cup campaign darkened the atmosphere at Easter Road once again, and not even a final pre-season friendly victory over Norwich City could restore the previous excitement and feel-good factor slowly spreading through the fanbase.
Johnson had said before the game that new signings Marijan Čabraja and Élie Youan would be available and capable of playing the full 90 minutes if required. It could have been bluster or a double-bluff to keep St Johnstone guessing but in the end both players did exactly that and played their part in the victory.
The Croatian, especially, looks like a shrewd acquisition based on the quality of his balls into the box and while he was obviously rusty in parts, the prospect of him at full capacity should be an especially exciting one for Hibs fans.
Subs come good
Managers are damned if they do, damned if they don’t when it comes to substitutions. Supporters will urge coaches to change it up and then greet swaps with howls of derision, or the bosses don’t take enough risks for the fans’ liking.
Against Callum Davidson’s side, Johnson made four switches. The first two changes saw Christian Doidge and Demi Mitchell come on for Elias Melkersen and Jair Tavares. Physicality and speed against an increasingly desperate backline holding out for a point.
The third change saw Campbell come on for Chris Cadden, who had picked up a knock. This was the crucial one, as the 22-year-old was credited with the winner, but also because Lewis Miller was on the bench and could have been a safe straight swap for Cadden while Momodou Bojang might have been thrown on to increase the number of attackers on the park.
Johnson is a big fan of Campbell’s energy levels and his versatility proved vital in this win. The fourth change, bringing on Jake Doyle-Hayes for Nohan Kenneh might have been to eat up a few more seconds of injury time but it also allowed the impressive 19-year-old to receive a standing ovation from the travelling fans.
There is always an element of luck in football but as the saying goes, you make your own luck. Subs can change matches in both directions but in this case, out of the possible changes Johnson could have made he called them all, especially the first three, spot on.
Had Hibs strolled to a 4-0 win then there surely would have been a feeling of complacency creeping into the playing squad ahead of Sunday’s derby; never a good sign at the best of times. Had the game been lost or drawn, especially against a side that had gone down to ten men, the knives would have been back out for manager and players.
As it is, three points and a battling performance is probably the ideal warm-up to the first derby of the campaign. No summer arrivals getting ideas above their station but enough positivity to possibly make a difference on the Easter Road turf come midday on Sunday.
Hibs are something of an unknown quantity under Johnson, who has already shown he has the gumption to take calculated risks but crucially isn’t a managerial novice. He freely admits he hasn’t managed a team in a proper derby but he has played in them and that, coupled with his love for history, should also prove beneficial.
The question marks
The only downside, perhaps, of Hibs’ win in Perth is that we still don’t know a great deal about this team, and we also don’t know the strongest XI.
David Marshall wasn’t really tested all that much by Theo Bair, Stevie May, or the Saints midfielders, although it would be fair to say we know what to expect from him.
Tavares and Youan had some nice moments but are still bedding into Scottish football, while there was a bit more from Čabraja and Kenneh in the left-back and holding midfield roles respectively.
Hibs could benefit from being a vastly-changed side to the team that stuttered through the previous two Edinburgh derbies, although granted neither was at Easter Road. The still-lengthy injury list is a blow but the potential return of club captain Paul Hanlon would be a further boost for Johnson and the squad.
As far as preparation goes for the first all-Edinburgh encounter of the campaign, Hibs couldn’t have done much more in their opening match. But there is a long, long week leading up to this much-anticipated fixture and likely more twists and turns to come.