FOR the Hibernian supporters to have clapped off an opposing team wearing maroon at the conclusion of such a high-stakes encounter was undoubtedly recognition of Arbroath’s efforts in making a fist of this last-16 Scottish Cup tie. However, there was also surely a sense of relief involved in the ovation that hailed the League 2 side’s display and the home side’s place in today’s quarter-final draw.
Given Hibs’ tortured history in the competition they have infamously not won since 1902, the fans could have been forgiven for fearing yet more ignominy when Arbroath took a shock lead just 16 minutes in and continued thereafter to cause jitters to spread round three sides of the stadium.
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The Red Lichties eschewed the usual defensive approach to these sorts of ties and fielded two strikers – the potent, 35-goal pairing of Paul McManus and Simon Murray – and matched up with the Easter Road side’s talented midfield quartet.
As manager Allan Moore later admitted, the tactic did not earn the Angus team the ultimate prize of a place in the last-eight of the tournament, but it did ensure Hibs were made to work hard for their progress. Only when they stretched into a two-goal lead midway through the second half were Alan Stubbs’ men able to display the confidence of a side believing their job was almost done.
Much will depend on who they are paired with but the capital side will be fully aware that they are now only one more victory from a trip to Hampden and two from a third final in four years. Can the trepidation associated with the trophy now be replaced by hope?
For vice-captain David Gray, the targets were unspoken but he is clear that the players assembled by Stubbs through two transfer windows are now capable of cajoling and inspiring each other to success.
Gray made an earlier-than-expected return from a groin operation four weeks ago to replace the cup-tied Keith Watson, while Fraser Fyvie enjoyed a steady debut in midfield and the on-loan Dundee striker, Martin Boyle, who was also cup-tied, saw his replacement in attack, Franck Dja Djedje net the crucial equaliser and have a hand in substitute Dylan McGeouch’s clinching third goal.
“The squad is so much stronger now than at the start of the window,” was Gray’s assessment. “For instance, Keith [Watson] has come in and he’s a very experienced player. He’s played at a higher level; all his games have been in the Premier League. He can play in a couple of positions, which keeps us all on our toes.
“We know that, if anyone does get injured or anyone is unavailable for games, we’ve got a great squad and people to step in.
“With Fraser coming in right at the end of the window, there’s real competition for the midfield places.
“We’ve now five, six or seven really good players to come in and play there. It’s great to see and it can only push everybody on. It’s really exciting and good for the club.”
Gray held his hand up and admitted culpability for Arbroath’s opener, which stemmed from his right-back position. Kieran Stewart and on-loan Dundee midfielder Dylan Carreiro combined beautifully to engineer space on the left side of the box and Stewart made a mockery of the tight angle by lashing a fierce shot into the roof of the net.
Dja Djedje had a strike chalked off for a high boot on goalkeeper Marc McCallum and Scott Allan struck the post with a 20-yard drive before Hibs finally got the equaliser they desperately required. Allan, again the fulcrum of the Easter Road side’s attack, proving why the club would not accept Dundee United’s advances on transfer deadline day, slipped a pass inside Johnny Lindsay and Gray’s cutback was swept in by Dja Djedje for his first goal since signing last month.
The goal came at a great time for Hibs and the feeling that it could prove crucial was proved right after the interval. The second duly arrived on the hour mark when Jason Cummings turned on an astute pass from Lewis Stevenson, who captained the side on the occasion of his 250th appearance for the club, and speared a low shot into the net with the aid of a huge deflection off Liam Gordon.
That came just moments after the introduction of McGeouch from the bench and the on-loan Celtic player was rewarded for his injection of energy when he ran decisively from the right flank, exchanged passes with Dja Djedje and bought himself enough time to drill a left-foot effort beyond McCallum. McManus, the Arbroath striker whose cousin Tam was something of a hero at Easter Road, later revealed the on-loan Dundee United keeper had played despite the heartache of losing his mother just days earlier.
“That takes great courage for a young boy to come and play in a big game like that,” added McManus. “He was exceptional. I couldn’t believe he did it and we were wanting a result for him, and obviously for Arbroath. We never got it but I think we justified getting applauded off the park at the end.”
Arbroath, currently top of League 2, will now seek to use their impressive performance to enhance their promotion bid, while, for Hibs, next up is a trip to Ibrox on Friday for a match that could go some way to determining whether they can take second spot in the Championship.
Gray, who had no goals to his name before joining the club in the summer, has scored in each of Hibs’ two league victories over Rangers, however he insists he will have other aims in mind this week. “First and foremost I’m a defender,” he said, “and I would swap them for clean sheets every day of the week.”