FINDING a cutting edge is something that continues to trouble Hibs but, through to the next round of the League Cup, they will decree that the most important thing was finding a way through this round.
Last year they exited this competition on a penalty shootout. That was against Dundee United and the Easter Road side had been the underdogs who had performed valiantly. The idea that favourites are there to be felled was reinforced on Tuesday night when Dundee were dumped out by lower league Dunfermline, while otherssuch as Motherwell and Hearts were forced to dig deep and exhibit patience to ensure progress.
A level below Hibs, Stranraer were still not to be taken lightly. Offering up little in an attacking sense in the opening period of the match, they proved resolute at the rear and while the swarm of offensive options fielded by Alan Stubbs gave them plenty to occupy them, it didn’t unnerve them.
Darren McGregor made his debut, the new Hibs signing starting the match at right-back, but it was the colleagues in front of him who would have to find a way to break down the solid banks of bright orange shorts if his new side were to win this fixture. It proved a laborious task. Stranraer were happy to give the Championship side possession in the middle of the park as the passing and build-up play lacked the shift up the gears, the movement to spread the defence thin or the penetration needed to give them the only advantage that counts in football.
In the second minute, Liam Henderson’s cutback picked out Fraser Fyvie but his effort was parried by Conor Brennan. Three minutes later Henderson’s effort was blocked and the danger remained minimal as Jason Cummings and Co lacked the sharpness or incisive interplay to carve out anything more dangerous than long-range strikes which trundled wide of target.
The sense was that until Hibs could find a way to break the deadlock, Stranraer would stick to a game plan aimed at frustrating, stifling their opponents and picking up stray balls to hit them on the break.
The tactics served them well but a minor deviation from it, sending bodies up to supplement the strikeforce at a corner, almost cost them as Hibs sliced them open, playing them at their own game. Having dealt with that set-piece threat, Hibs hurtled up the park, but the visitors enjoyed a let-off when Fyvie’s strike came off the crossbar.
But in the 36th minute, it was Stranraer who engineered the best opportunity of the first 45 minutes, reminding their hosts that for all the territory and possession, they had done nothing to extinguish the threat posed by Brian Reid’s men.
Malcolm’s shot, hooked over his shoulder, was hit with precision and power and was destined for the postage stamp corner of Mark Oxley’s net before the goalkeeper made an athletic intervention to push the effort away from target.
It gave the League 1 side a lift as the interval approached, suddenly sensing they could make a breakthrough on the counter and test Hibs’ mettle.
At half-time Stubbs will have demanded more from his charges and defenders McGregor and Liam Fontaine almost combined to give them the opening goal. In the 47th minute, the former flighted the ball in, but the latter’s header was just off target.
The goal did come, though, in the 54th minute. They can attribute it to patience and perseverance and even laud the build-up by McGinn and Fyvie, but the record books will show that they also have to thank poor Scott Rumsby, who did what no-one in the home side seemed capable of doing and finding a way past his team-mates. His attempt to clear Fyvie’s square ball only succeeded in sending the ball into the net.
It was a cruel blow and if it had been a boxing match, on points, it was a lead Hibs would have been worthy of but it wasn’t an immediate knock-out blow as Stranraer picked themselves back up and kept themselves in the fight right up to final whistle. They rejigged personnel and tried to find the goal that would at least take the contest into extra time, but the best they could muster was an Andy Stirling effort three minutes from time, which went over the bar. That allowed Hibs passage through to the next round, but there are still issues they need to address.
Hibernian: Oxley, McGregor, Hanlon, Fontaine, Stevenson, McGeouch, Fyvie (Carmichael 62), McGinn, Henderson, Cummings (Keatings 82), Boyle. Unused subs: Reguero, Bartley, Malonga, Stanton, Martin.
Stranraer: Brennan, Robertson, Rumsby, Mair, Pettigrew, McGuigan, Thomson (Aitken 66), Cairney (Longworth 70), Bell, Stirling, Malcolm (McGill 77). Unused subs: Currie, Keenan, McCloskey, Rowan.#
Referee: K Clancy