STILL early in the season, there may also be mitigating reasons, but earlier today there were a handful of clubs capable of taking top spot in the SPL and they weren’t the usual suspects.
Scorers: Hibernian - Doyle (29), Griffiths (51 pen), Wotherspoon (74)
With Rangers down in the Third Division, this had been billed as a campaign where the other clubs could indulge in a meaningful battle for an elevated finish, but after a competitive start, it wasn’t just second place they were vying for.
The likelihood is that Celtic will still gallop to the title, but with Neil Lennon’s men not in action until they host Hearts tomorrow afternoon and Motherwell denied their opportunity to leapfrog them due to a power cut which saw their match postponed, it was down to the likes of Hibs, Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Aberdeen. All four were in with a shout, and even St Johnstone, arithmetically, had an outside chance.
It made for a tantalising afternoon and it was a day where some would rise to the occasion, others wouldn’t.
Hibs’ manager has made no secret of the fact that it was the mentality as much as the abilities of certain players which saw them ushered out the door during the close season. He was appalled at the dire straits the team found themselves in last term and disgusted at the attitude of those he considered culpable. It has led to an emphatic overhaul of the squad, with competition for places and a greater steel. That showed again today, in the display and the additions to the subs rota. New goalkeeper Sean Murdoch, who has agreed a short-term deal following his departure from Accrington Stanley, was on the bench, along with Tom Taiwo.
A potential banana skin, this was a match they were expected to win. But after a decent start in the league they had taken just one point from six in their last two games. But they put that behind them as they shouldered the burden of expectation and used the promise of top spot as a source of inspiration rather than being intimidated by it. Although the scoreline difference between the teams was only three goals, the gulf in performance was actually greater, particularly in the second 45 minutes by which time Hibs had settled into a comfortable rhythm, with their visitors left chasing the game. Dundee manager Barry Smith felt aggrieved to be behind at the break, focusing instead on the chances missed by his men, and they did have shots at a goal either side of Hibs’ opener.
Hibs had tried to find a way through but had been repelled by an organised Dundee rearguard, with Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle forcing interventions from Gary Irvine and then Rab Douglas in the opening 15 minutes. But then Dundee signalled their intent. Ryan Conroy played in Jim McAlister and he forced a save from Ben Williams, the Hibs keeper at full stretch. Colin Nish then tested the keeper before Dundee shot themselves in the foot at the other end. Paul Cairney was industrious and determined to get into forward areas and he delivered the 29th minute cross into the box which found Doyle, and the striker found it too easy to bullet a header into the net.
It infuriated the away manager but it was a relief to Pat Fenlon, who admitted that the timing was important and prevented any real jangling of nerves as they sought to get back to winning ways.
The problem for the SPL newcomers is that they are making too many mistakes in key areas, with the opposition being allowed too much space. Having allowed Hibs to extend their lead in the first few minutes of the second half, they found themselves up against a side playing with self-belief and a desire for even more goals. The second came from the spot after Brian Easton, Iain Davidson and McAlister dawdled over clearing their area and the latter felled Cairney. Griffiths took the penalty and blasted it high to the left of Douglas, who was helpless.
Imbued with an incisive edge, Hibs have cast off the drudgery and dismay of last term, and even the wearied fans have responded. Heading back to Easter Road in greater numbers, the tension and misery which permeated the air last term has been replaced with a more patient positivity. And the feelgood mood in the ranks swelled further with the recording of another goal and a clean sheet. The goal came from David Wotherspoon in the 73rd minute as he curled a shot into the net.
Left-back Ryan McGivern made his first start and along with his countryman James McPake, was watched from the stand by his Northern Ireland gaffer Michael O’Neill. The former Hibs player will have been impressed with the full-back’s contribution as he strolled through his full debut. It’s another astute addition which has helped Hibs build momentum.
Yes, it is still early days, but Hibs will wake up tomorrow morning as SPL leaders. Given recent history, that’s not something to be scoffed at.
Hibernian: Williams, Clancy, McPake, Hanlon, McGivern, Wotherspoon, Claros, Deegan, Cairney, Doyle, Griffiths. Subs: Murdoch, Maybury, Taiwo, Handling, Caldwell, Kuqi, Harris.
Dundee: Douglas, Irvine, Benedictus, Grassi, Easton, Davidson, McBride, Conroy, Kerr, McAlister, Nish. Subs: Baird, Lockwood, Gallagher, Riley, Baird, Milne, Boyle