IN AN effort to make a point about Hibernian’s strength in depth following Tuesday’s narrow win over Falkirk, John McGinn pointed reporters towards their bench. “It’s worthy of any team in the league,” he claimed.
If anything, the midfielder is under-selling a group consisting of Antonio Reguero, Fraser Fyvie, Farid El Alagui, Martin Boyle, Liam Henderson, Liam Fontaine and Islam Feruz. Any manager in the Scottish Premiership bar Celtic’s Ronny Deila would be happy to look back over his shoulder and see such a cast assembled behind him.
Feruz, of course, presents a challenge for anyone’s man management skills, including those of Jose Mourinho. But in his particular case the talent is clearly there; whether Hibs and their manager Alan Stubbs will see more than glimpses of it is another question.
As a Chelsea player, Feruz is in a different category. But the rest are all more than good enough to hold their own in the top tier in Scotland; indeed, they would probably enhance most teams.
But here they are in the Championship, charged, it often seems, with the task of securing promotion via the fraught play-off process. Even Hibs fans appear resigned to this risky route as they contemplate the prospect of life back in the Premiership.
But why? Surely ambitions of finishing top should now be resuscitated. Hibs are gradually clicking into gear due to a combination of players returning from injury and others finding their feet.
It is worth comparing the Hibs substitutes from Tuesday with those named by Mark Warburton for Rangers’ last league match, against Queen of the South on Saturday: Nicky Law, Nicky Clark, Nathan Oduwa, Jordan Thompson, Fraser Aird, Luke Kelly and Ryan Hardie. Stubbs would surely choose his bench over theirs. Indeed, Warburton probably would.
As one experienced football writer opined at the Falkirk Stadium, before Hibs drew to within eight points of Rangers with a 1-0 win over the hosts: the health of a football team is best gauged by the strength of its bench.
Such are Stubbs’ options he can afford to be selective. Ahead of this weekend’s trip to Kirkcaldy to face Raith Rovers, he has the luxury of making changes again. He made three for the visit to Falkirk. Henderson, Fyvie and Fontaine dropped out while Marvin Bartley, Dylan McGeouch and Paul Hanlon were drafted in.
Remarkably, players of the calibre of Sam Stanton and Jordon Forster were not even stripped on Tuesday. Neither was Estonian international Henri Anier, the on-loan signing from Dundee United. He is nearing match fitness so will be another option for Stubbs to consider.
There is a case to be made for each department’s pre-eminence; defence, midfield and attack. But it is in midfield where Hibs look particularly strong. McGinn and McGeouch in the wider areas, Marvin Bartley operating at the base of the diamond; with James Keatings at the tip. Indeed, Bartley, a little heralded on-loan signing from Leyton Orient, was man of the match against Falkirk according to many observers.
Such details are interesting considering the commotion – Stubbs’ word – surrounding the future of Scott Allan at the start of the season.
Interesting, too, is the manager’s contention on Tuesday night that “we have only performed badly once this season, and that was at Dumbarton”. This also happened to be the one game Allan started before his protracted transfer tug-of-war ended with him departing for Celtic.
There was once a time when mention of Allan’s name prompted and ironic quipped reply of “who?” from Stubbs, so sick was he becoming about answering questions about the player. The questions kept coming because he was then thought to be pivotal to Hibs’ chances of going up.
According to received wisdom, they had fatally undermined their chances by selling him. Allan might have gone to the east end of Glasgow but the title had been all but parcelled up and sent to Govan.
No one is irritating Stubbs with questions about Allan now. Instead, he is being asked whether he can keep everyone happy, whether the squad he has been quietly building is stronger than last season. There might now be justification for judging it favourably next to Rangers’ squad. “We are rising to the challenge, we are chasing,” he said earlier this week. “Rangers have had a fantastic start. But we are up for the fight.”
And so they should be. Heavily beaten by Rangers in the Petrofac Cup, Hibs were unfortunate to leave with nothing from Ibrox in their first league clash. So is the Easter Road squad stronger than last year? McGinn thinks so – although, like any footballer with at least a couple of media training sessions under their belt, he quickly added: “No disrespect to the players last year”.
Even sans Allan, it is difficult to deny Hibs are now better equipped to go up – as champions. The head start they have given Rangers is unhelpful. But while the Ibrox side are still racking up wins, they have become tighter, last-gasp affairs.
Meanwhile, Stubbs continues to advance the notion that their larger budget means the title is Rangers’ to lose. But surely, while Warburton’s team must still be considered favourites, Hibs can’t be regarded as underdogs, dismissed as having more in common with the likes of Raith and Falkirk.
Much depends on what happens over the next ten days, of course, when Hibs face Raith before turning their thoughts to a game-of-games against Rangers at Easter Road. But if they are not snapping at the Ibrox side’s heels before long, it should be permissible to ask: why not?