The secrets behind Hibs becoming as solid as the old castle rock

It is the Hearts song that features the line about their defence being as strong as the old castle rock. But, when the Capital sides face up at Hampden on Saturday, Hibs are hoping they will be the ones calling the tune.

Paul McGinn and Alex Gogic have been key to Hibs' defensive resolve. Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group

As it stands, the Leith club have never bettered their neighbours at a neutral venue and while they have the more recent bragging rights on Scottish Cup duty, having vanquished Robbie Neilson’s side en route to the long-awaited success in 2016, head-to-heads at Hampden Park have been ones to forget for the green-and-white side of Edinburgh.

Conceding an accumulated nine goals to their rivals in their last two meetings at the national stadium, that is just one fewer than the entire number of goals shipped in their first dozen Premiership games this season.

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Which presents Hearts with a different proposition than previous encounters in Glasgow. While Tynecastle teams are, more often, attributed with organisation and solidity, Hibs have long since enjoyed a romantic view of themselves as a more cavalier enterprise.

That attack-minded attitude has always found favour with Hibs fans, whose main target has been scoring more than their rivals.

A simplistic approach, up against Gorgie teams that could boast solid defences and also pack a punch up front, statistics and history proves the respective tactics offered Hearts more satisfaction than Hibs.

But, Hbs ambitions are built on a more solid foundation these days, which make for an intriguing encounter.

Notable turnaround

This season they have recorded clean sheets in 50 per cent of their 12 league matches, and only once have they conceded more than two goals in a game.

That represents a notable turnaround from last term. Until this season there had been a worrying see-saw that either tipped too far towards protecting their own goal at the expense of chances at the other end, or favoured more voracious attacking displays which left them dangerously exposed at the back.

Since his arrival almost a year ago, Jack Ross has worked relentlessly to pull together a more balanced team, one where defence can galvanise attack but where the strikers are also the industrious frontline of his defence. So far, this season, it has paid off.

Which is why the team that managed just four clean sheets in his 22 games in charge last term are now a far more miserly proposition, completely nullifying adversaries at a rate of every second outing.

If not quite a Hearts blueprint, Ross’ side does doff its hat to Gorgie sides of old. Like the castle, performances are built on a rock-solid defence, while industry is also demanded of flair players.

It’s not just the defenders

Fortified at the back, like the Nor Loch that once kept the less determined attacks on Edinburgh Castle at bay, the workrate of strikers Kevin Nisbet and Christian Doidge offer the men behind them an extra layer of protection and means they bring more to the side than goals. Whether it is their aerial ability, which could help marshall Hearts at set pieces, or their willingness to close down rivals and deny them space and time to launch their own ambush, they buy their team-mates time to regroup and organise themselves if a foray forward breaks down.

That worth ethic and energy is a mark of everyone is Ross’ first-choice line-up.

Coaching and video footage

His chosen defence has not changed much in terms of personnel. While other departments were strengthened, he had faith in his options at the back. But he also pinpointed certain weaknesses and demanded improvements. Lockdown gave players the chance to work on them. When they returned for pre-season they were drilled, as Ross and his sidekick John Potter used the training ground to reinforce messages and ensure they all understood their roles.

For players like young Ryan Porteous there was video footage that allowed him to work on positioning and decision-making so he emerged from injury and isolation as a more mature and composed player and a valuable foil for the more experienced and established Paul Hanlon in the centre of the Hibs rearguard.

Their partnership has proven solid in a back four or as part of a three-man defence and, along with the lack of crowd, transmitting their nerves onto the players, has been significant in allowing the side to see out tight, 1-0 games this term, without panic. The lack of a crowd, transmitting their nerves onto them has also, undoubtedly, influenced that but in an empty Hampden that fans’ tension will remain a significant absentee.

Whether it would be as big an issue as it has been in the past, now that the team are feeling confident and the trust in each other has been enhanced by a start to the season that has presented tangible proof that they are more robust, is debatable anyway.

Gogic and the rest

The entire team has played a part in turning that around.

Ofir Marciano has pulled off incredible saves, when required, and is a quality component of the side’s ability to repel rivals. But often that work is carried out long before it demands his intervention, with men like Alex Gogic, alert to gaps that open up when the wing backs advance, and the likes of Paul McGinn establishing himself as a contender for Lewis Stevenson’s title of Mr Consistent. In his absence, Josh Doig’s performances at left-back belie his youth, while Joe Newell has been transformed.

At the beginning of the season, there was the fear that interest in Martin Boyle could rob Hibs of their main asset, the man they relied on to counterattack and drag the danger away from his own goal. Having found a better balance, while Ross still wants to attack, his line-ups also have greater resolve.

The defence may not be as strong as the old castle rock but, proving pretty impenetrable, it could yet be a solid enough foundation on which to build their dream of another Scottish Cup final place.

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