Hibs show they’re a tough nut to crack at Alloa

Alloa goalkeeper Craig McDowall is helpless as a header from David Gray (out of picture) loops into the net. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Alloa goalkeeper Craig McDowall is helpless as a header from David Gray (out of picture) loops into the net. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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HIBERNIAN did not win this match either comprehensively or even convincingly. But the fact that they won it at all provided evidence of the progress – modest but unmistakable – that they have made in recent weeks.

On their last visit to Alloa’s synthetic surface, Alan Stubbs’ side took the lead but went on to lose. It was therefore an ominous sign when they went behind on Saturday, and a couple of months ago the loss of that goal might well have triggered an attack of nerves. But this time they were soon back on terms then ahead before the break, and although they failed to kill the game off, they deservedly took their place in today’s Scottish Cup fifth-round draw.

“From the first time we played Alloa here, our performance was night and day,” left-back Lewis Stevenson said. “We showed a bit of character and a bit of guts to hang on at the end. We started the game pretty well and I thought the reaction after losing the goal was tremendous.”

Since that defeat at the end of August, Hibs have played 13 games, losing only two – one in the Championship to Queen of the South, the other on penalties in the League Cup to Dundee United. They have drawn four more in the league, all of them at Easter Road, where the determination and self-belief they show on the road – they have now won six away games on the spin – has tended to be lacking. But while those dropped points at home mean they are still well off the pace at the top of the second tier, it is clear that Stubbs is steadily making a sustained improvement to the team.

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The individual form of Scott Allan is helping immensely, of course. The former Dundee United player initially began to shine for his new club when playing alongside Dylan McGeouch in midfield, but he has kept up a high level of performance even with McGeouch sidelined through injury, and at a time when he is probably still short of match fitness himself.

Allan’s importance to Hibs lies in the combination of his technical ability and drive, which together help his teammates keep their heads up in adversity. In recent seasons they have tended to suffer long spells of drifting out of the game, but Allan helps ensure they play at a far more consistent pace, allowing opponents less time to relax.

Given the form he has been in, it was no surprise that Allan was the most influential player on the pitch, although matters might have turned out differently had Alloa taken a priceless chance to go two goals up. Daryll Meggatt had given the home team the lead after quarter of an hour when his 30-yard shot was fumbled by Mark Oxley, the ball slipping first through the Hibs goalkeeper’s hands and then through his legs before crossing the line. Minutes later, Ryan McCord put Steve Cawley through on goal, but he chipped wide as Oxley rushed out to close him down. With that fortunate escape out of the way, Hibs went on to take control of the first half. They were awarded a dubious free kick for handball around 22 yards out, and Liam Craig scored directly from it.

Home goalkeeper Craig McDowall looked at fault there, and he might also have done better less than ten minutes later when David Gray gave Hibs the lead. The full-back had already hit the woodwork with a back-post header following a cross from the left, and when he was given another opportunity he made no mistake, heading back across goal out of McDowall’s reach. Alloa, who had six regulars unavailable, fought well to get back on terms after the break, and had the only real chance of a dull second half when McCord side-footed wide. The only other noteworthy incident in that period was the 87th-minute sending-off of Dominique Malonga after an off-the-ball clash with Ben Gordon, but Hibs’ loss of the striker came too late to offer the home team much hope. Given their record in the cup, Hibs will surely shy away from any thoughts of a return to Hampden for a while yet. But Stevenson, while insisting that the Championship had to be the club’s main concern, gave an indication of their growing confidence when he suggested they would not be fearful of what the draw might throw up.

“We’ve been in two finals and I know the heartache that goes with it,” he said, referring to the losses to Hearts and Celtic respectively in 2012 and 2013. “Our main priority is the league, but we’ll see what happens in the Scottish Cup. It can be done. I know we’re in a league below, but I think this team is as good as any I’ve played in.”

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