ASKED post-match if he was relieved at the slender Scottish Cup win for his ten-man team, Alan Stubbs bristled. Relieved? No. Happy? Yes.
SCORERS: Alloa - Meggatt 15; Hibernian - Craig 28, Gray 37
If you had put the same question to the Hibs hordes who watched their side make heavy weather of what looked at one point like it would be a breeze, they might have accented relief over contentment.
Here was a win achieved after the early loss of a goal that was a humongous embarrassment for keeper Mark Oxley, and closed out without the presence of Dominique Malonga, after the striker was red-carded in 88 minutes for what seemed like a kick-out at Kyle Benedictus off the ball, but what Stubbs was told by referee Bobby Madden was a punch spotted by assistant Stuart McMillan.
Having dominated possession and earned a half-time lead through a Liam Craig free-kick and a header from David Gray, an attritional second period was notable for neither side being able to change the course of the tie. Sometimes it feels as if Hibs’ tilts for the Scottish Cup are wrapped up in documenting the course of early 20th century British history. Each campaign is viewed through the prism of their last success coming in 1902.
Stubbs can live with reminders of his club’s failure in this competition, because he feels he now has a team that can live with any he could face in the fifth round. “We are aware of the 113 years,” the Hibs manager said. “It is nice to see the history and you can’t shy away from it if it’s not history that is favourable. One day it will change. No disrespect to St Johnstone, but no one would have expected their win. They way we have played in this past month, no one will fancy playing us.”
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With the two teams separated by four places and ten points in the Championship, courtesy of an 11-game run in which the only defeat for Alan Stubbs’ men was on penalties away to Dundee United in the League Cup, there was little reason to assume that against part-time opponents the visitors would exhibit the flakiness that has turned the Scottish Cup into a Holy Grail for their club.
This competition seems to do funny things to those adorned in Hibs colours, though. In that bracket yesterday could be placed Hull City on-loan goalkeeper Oxley. After the Easter Road men had begun confidently enough, Oxley caused that belief temporarily to evaporate when he allowed the ball seemingly to take on the properties of a wet bar of soap.
It was something he did on a number of occasions, however never with more disastrous results than a quarter of an hour in, when Daryll Meggatt had a hit-and-hope effort from the left that skited along at stately pace from 35 yards out. Somehow though, after Oxley crouched down to get right behind the bobbling ball, he allowed it to squirm through his legs. “It happens in football. We all make mistakes,” Stubbs said in defence of his keeper. “That is why there are ten other team-mates to help you out.”
Two minutes on from that howler, Stubbs’ side should have been in real soapy bubble when Ryan McCord cutely released Kevin Cawley racing through the middle and, with the goal opening up for him, the midfielder clipped the ball the wrong side of the post. “If we had made it 2-0 then it would have been an entirely different game,” said Alloa manager Barry Smith, who rightfully praised the shift of his team missing six injured players. “But Kevin got himself in there.”
Hibs got themselves into the fifth round thanks to a Liam Craig free-kick that he curled low past a wholly ineffective defensive wall approaching the half-hour, before Gray, who had earlier smacked the base of the post with a header, sent one from the back post on a huge parabola to drop over Craig McDowall’s head. “He is great to manage, a warrior, my type of player and a defender you can hang your hat on,” Stubbs said of his full-back’s contribution.
Alloa never stopped grafting as they forced Hibs back in a chanceless second half, but their effort to expose backline weaknesses were weary.
Smith fears his squad – plumbers, workmen, and taxi drivers among them – could be even more fatigued for Wednesday’s Petrofac Training Cup semi-final.
“What folk have to remember is we have a midweek game, with a depleted squad of part-time players for a semi-final against Rangers. It is not easy,” he said. “Our guys have to go to their work before the game and that is not quite correct, but the performance today will stand us in good stead.”
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