LIAM Craig claimed a hat-trick as his side rattled in five goals, but for many of the home fans the more pertinent statistic was the fact their team had extended their unbeaten run to six games and moved into the next round of the League Cup.
Having made such a big effort to re-ingratiate themselves with the fans over the past few weekends, the last thing Hibs needed was another blip. Not in a knockout contest, not so early in the run and not to a side from the lower leagues.
So, it was far from ideal to concede a goal just three minutes into the action, and another two after going 4-1 up.
Stranraer led when a corner was zipped in by Chris Aitken and Jamie Longworth directed a header beyond Ben Williams and inside the far post.
It was enough to prompt some jitters around the stadium, but they had little time to take a stranglehold in the pit of the players’ and the punters’ stomachs as Craig quickly came up with a goal to cancel out that early effort and allow the home side to start afresh.
The service came from Rowan Vine on the left flank: his cross was played into the area with purpose and Craig connected perfectly. While David Mitchell got a hand to the glanced effort, such was the pace and power of the delivery he was unable to halt its progress into the net.
With parity restored, Hibs began to settle into the game and while Stranraer worked hard and pressed the play, the superiority of the Premiership side became more and more obvious as they dominated possession and camped out in their visitors’ half.
As an attacking force, Pat Fenlon’s men certainly had several options. Craig was a man in the zone and with an eye for goal, while Vine was finding the space and the self-belief to take the game to the Stranraer defence. Up front, James Collins was a focal point, but as the game opened out and Hibs began to find their rhythm, it was Abdellah Zoubir, in his first start for the Leith side, who captured the imagination.
His movement with and without the ball stretched the away rearguard… roving about, swapping a more central position for a wee wander out to the wings, before coming back in again. By the midway point in the first half, the capital team could have been several goals to the good, with Craig coming close from a couple of opportunities, but Mitchell was not for making life simple for the top-flight players. He was also the spoilsport when Zoubir had an attempt at opening his personal account in the 26th minute.
Collins was next to be foiled with a couple of blocks from close-range angled shots which came in quick succession.
Zoubir was the main agitator in attack at that point, though, and in the 32nd minute danced through a clutch of Stranraer players, but no-one could capitalise on his ball into the box. He took the next chance himself. It materialised in the 34th minute and this time the keeper could do nothing about it as it came in from wide and appeared to take a deflection off Scott Rumsby on the way into the net.
If the defender was rueing his bad luck at that moment, he must have felt cursed a few minutes later when Rowan Vine sent in a 36th-minute corner and he stretched out a leg to clear and succeeded only in sending the ball past his keeper and into the net.
It gave Hibs a comfortable lead going into the second half and they extended it just two minutes after the restart when Craig made it four, his effort looping over Mitchell and into the back of the net.
But Stranraer were not going to go quietly. While some in the stands will have been hoping for another couple of goals and the prospect of a scoreline that would help dilute the memory of a previous skelping on this turf, Stephen Aitken’s battlers were still working hard.
They pulled one back in the 49th minute, with a long-range effort by Chris Aitken, then continued to press, forcing Michael Nelson to make the same mistake as his Stranraer counterpart as he put the ball in the back of his own net to make it 4-3. It proved that the game still had plenty life in it. But eight minutes after that howler, Hibs reasserted themselves courtesy of a Stranraer handball in the box, which gifted Craig the chance of a hat-trick. It was a present he was never likely to pass up and he almost ripped his strike through the roof of the net as he gave Mitchell no chance.
Having kept the scoreline respectable Stranraer never gave up and within two minutes they saw two efforts squirt just wide of the post, while substitute Mark Corcoran was unlucky with a header as the minutes and the chance of being involved in the next round ebbed away.