Alan Pattullo: Hibs had bottle… and signs of rust

WHATEVER were the causes of their downfall on Wednesday night, Hibernian finished only three points above Rangers in the league.

Alan Stubbs was terse when asked if Hibs had lost their never at Ibrox on Wednesday.  Picture: John Devlin
Alan Stubbs was terse when asked if Hibs had lost their never at Ibrox on Wednesday. Picture: John Devlin

It shouldn’t therefore be a major surprise that they should go to Ibrox and lose. After all, they were beaten 2-0 by the same opponents not so long ago at Easter Road.

Even then they had to put up with muttering about being bottle-crashers, because that’s the way it is at Hibs these days, hence manager Alan Stubbs’ shirty response when the inevitable question was put to him on Wednesday night, following his side’s disappointing 2-0 defeat in the first leg of their play-off semi-final. “So Alan, yer team really cannae handle the pressure, eh? Weak in the head, the lot of them.”

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It wasn’t put to him quite so tactlessly of course. But coming so soon after such an intense evening it is hardly surprising that Stubbs bristled a bit, even if he had to expect such an accusation being made.

It has now become shorthand for explaining every Hibs defeat, which is actually quite unhelpful since it tends to obscure the perhaps more pertinent points. Indeed, it might even provide Stubbs with shelter from other, perhaps more valid criticisms of his tactical decisions. Rather than question the manager’s approach to the game, it often seems to boil down to a very non-forensic interpretation. Lose to a team they are expected to beat? Bottlers. Lose to a team whose budget is far larger and who have the added advantage of being urged on by nearly 50,000 fans? Bottlers again.

The diagnosis is lazy. It avoids taking careful consideration of the facts. With 47 per cent possession, it is hardly fair to claim Hibs crumpled in the eye of the storm. Indeed, with a 13 to 1 corner-kick count in their favour, it is possible to claim Hibs rose to the occasion, carrying out Stubbs’ pre-match orders to go for the win but coming unstuck in the somewhat crucial department of scoring actual goals.

It isn’t the first time. We don’t even need to burrow back too far to find another big occasion when Hibs were undone not by a supposedly chronic fear of big, noisy, paper-ball throwing occasions, but by a shockingly inept inability to turn pressure into goals. This failing was not quite so starkly apparent on Wednesday night, but they had chances, specifically when Jason Cummings failed to convert at the back post in the opening half.

He had another opportunity in the second half which, while far from straightforward, was certainly convertible for someone who, after scoring twice at Ibrox earlier this season, claimed he had “the touch of an angel”. Leigh Griffiths might have been among those noting how the ball spun less than gracefully off the young striker’s boot into the crowd at the Broomloan Road end.

It did make you wonder whether Hibs have been ill-served by the 18-day break since that comprehensive and – yes – cold-eyed dismantling of Falkirk, on an afternoon when surely they had to be credited with not bottling it? Stubbs has commented on a number of occasions that it is too early to tell whether this hiatus has been an advantage or not. “Ask me at 1:45pm on Saturday,” he said earlier this week, following the latest attempt to draw him on the subject.

But, at half-time in the tie, the evidence suggests Hibs have been knocked out of their groove slightly. A run of five successive league victories, in which they managed to score two or more goals each time, shuddered to a halt on Wednesday night.

No-one is suggesting they did not look lean, fit and hungry – they did. But on a less obviously perceptible level, there were signs of rustiness, chiefly in Cummings’ performance. A striker operates on instinct and he was in one of those runs in which everything was going right when the regulation season came to an end. Both he and Dominique Malonga scored in each of Hibs’ last four league outings.

But when they were really needed, they were below par, hampered it seemed to this observer, by an ill-timed lay-off as opposed to a debilitating attack of big-match nerves, a stick with which it has become so fashionable to beat Hibs.