Hibs show they are maturing nicely at Livingston and pay most fitting tribute to Ron Gordon
In the side’s first competitive match since their leader’s passing, manager Lee Johnson’s sartorial choice to wear a sombre collar, tie and blazer, was another obvious sign of respect. But, if Gordon is looking down, the thing that honoured him most was the performance.
The players continued their positive run of form in the league, making it seven Premiership games without defeat, to remain within grabbing distance of rivals Hearts who kept the pressure on with a victory over St Johnstone. It was a display that demonstrated greater maturity and belief, and illustrated that, having been given time and backing by Gordon, Johnson is turning things around.
There is a greater solidity and balance to the side – physically and mentally – borne of January reinforcements and the ongoing development of youngsters like Will Fish at one end of the pitch and Elie Youan at the other.
On his arrival in Leith, Gordon made it clear that his ambition was to improve the club, bit by bit, day by day, and the fruits of that ambition were evident on a day when around 3500 travelling supporters helped to turn the Tony Macaroni Stadium into a temporary annex of Leith, as the sunshine shone down.
Before the action could get under way there was an impeccably-observed minutes’ silence for a man who brought fresh ideas and impetus, not only to Hibs but also to the Scottish game as he tried to drive things forward and test long-established and sometimes lazy boundaries with an infectious enthusiasm.
A person with a can-do attitude, the fact that Hibs bounced back from losing the opening goal was somehow fitting. It showed the problem-solving attributes and resilience Gordon would have been proud of and there was some pretty cohesive and entertaining football as well.
Still a world away from the total football of Gordon’s hero, Johan Cruyff, there are signs that Hibs are trying to fashion a more entertaining brand. Having build greater resistance into the side, with James Jeggo and CJ Egan-Riley bolstering the defensive foundations, sitting in front of the backline, reading and reacting to danger, there are also more attacking options.
Replacing the injured Aiden McGeady, US forward Matthew Hoppe made his first start for the side, spearheading the attack as Youan moved out left. They both proved a danger to a Livingston defence which looked disjointed and nervy as it struggled to contain the main striker, as well as the next line of attack, which comprised the Frenchman, the dynamic Josh Campbell and the intermittent-guile of Ewan Henderson.
Livingston had threatened at the other end. A side that had been challenging the European spots, a run of four defeats on the trot have left them in the bottom six and on the slide. But they opened the scoring within the first 10 minutes when Joel Nouble, who was troubling Marijan Cabraja, smashed his shot in off the underside of the bar.
Earlier in the campaign that might have been a real problem for the Easter Road men but there is an assurance to their play. That trust seems to be being transmitted to the stands, where the boos and murmurs of the past have been replaced by vocal backing. The positivity proved to be well-founded and a Youan double had Hibernian ahead by the break.
The home defence had been vulnerable as they tried to weaponise the offside trap and they were finally caught out in the 27th minute when the loanee darted onto a long ball in behind and slotted his effort past Shamal George in the Livi goal.
If that was clinically-executed, his second 10 minutes later was a more scrappy affair as he sclaffed his connection following some strong build-up work but, on target, the pace seemed to fool the keeper.
Hoppe failed to convert when through one on one after the break but when he was set free once again Jack Fitzwater clipped his heels in his attempt to apply pressure and was sent packing. The extra-man proved an advantage but Hibs had looked well on course to success anyway.
They grabbed their third when Youan and Chris Cadden combined on the breakaway and the latter had the shot which deflected off Stephane Omeonga on the way into the net.
There was the opportunity to shuffle both packs as Livingston looked to stem the flow and Hibs moved to a 4-4-2 to give the likes of Lewis Miller, and returning strikers Kevin Nisbet and Mykola Kukharevich a run out.
It was the Ukrainian who wrapped up the scoring well into stoppage time, with a close range finish after George had denied Nisbet. But having gambled on all his changes David Martindale was to see out the game with nine men after Omeonga picked up an injury.
The Livi boss was also a notable absentee come the final whistle after he was punished by referee Chris Graham for an offensive gesture and sent to the stand.
It proved a miserable day for the hosts but for Hibs it was everything they could have hoped for as they looked to honour a man who has left his imprint on so many.