IT MAY be a work in progress but at least there are finally some signs that progress is being made. Not only did Hibs defy the Scottish Cup gremlins and edge through to the quarter-finals of the competition, they did it by keeping their first clean sheet at home since September.
Five of the winter signings started this one for Hibs and, in the first home game since the transfer window closed, their impact was immediate. There was movement, there was energy, there was dig and, most importantly, there was solid defending as well as an end product. Until now the poor Easter Road fans had rarely seen any of those commodities from their own team this season and never in the same game.
But, for the first 25 minutes, Hibs were a team reborn as they took the game by the scruff of the neck and gave Kilmarnock precious little of the space they usually create with their crisp passing and neat interplay. The away team battled back and while their manager, Kenny Shiels, was correct to insist that they did dominate possession for long spells, even he has to realise that converting that into goals is the crucial part.
“I’m disappointed with the result but not the performance,” said the Rugby Park gaffer. “We did everything we could.”
But defensively Hibs bettered them, while in the other key department, the Leith outfit outscored them. And as the long-suffering home fans will tell you, those are the factors that matter.
Buoyed by their progress into the final of the League Cup, Kilmarnock were hoping for an extended run in the other major knockout tournament and, given Hibs’ infamous drought in the Scottish Cup, allied to the capital side’s form this term, they will have had every confidence. But Hibs boss Pat Fenlon has made the most of the January transfer window. Until yesterday, they had mustered only two clean sheets at home all season. One was in the 5-0 victory over Berwick Rangers, a team three divisions below them, and the other a dreadful 0-0 draw with Aberdeen away back in September. Since then finding that impenetrability at home has been tougher than unearthing the Holy Grail. Yesterday, though, against a team with a good attacking pedigree, they were resolute.
“I thought we showed great character and defended well as a team. They put in a shift today and got their reward,” said Fenlon.
Joking with one reporter who admitted they hadn’t seen much of Hibs recently, he labelled them lucky before admitting that his team had worked hard as a team.
“We scored an early goal, which helped. It gave everyone something to hold onto for a change because we haven’t always started games properly and then everyone gets a bit edgy but I think they showed today that their workrate and enthusiasm for the game was first class.”
The goal came in the 15th minute when new full back, Gambian Pa Kujabi, cut the ball back for Eoin Doyle and the Irishman directed the ball into the net.
It was actually the second time Hibs had beaten Cammy Bell, but the first effort nine minutes earlier was ruled out for jostling in the box. They also had a sniff at extending their lead in the 18th minute but Bell denied them. Before the game began to even itself out and settle down.
For all that Shiels was keen to hint at possible penalty shouts his men were denied and switch focus to claims that Hibs goalkeeper Graham Stack has been a serial time-waster, saying he had frequently failed to release the ball within the allocated six seconds, the fact is his men couldn’t find a way beyond the solid new Hibs defence and the suggestion that the Hibs keeper had stretched it as long as 25 seconds a time sounded like sour grapes.
James McPake was the epitome of all that has been missing from the last line of defence. Eager to make up for the red card he picked up on his debut, at Rangers last weekend, he assumed the captain’s responsibilities, his marshalling of the men around him saw them perform as a unit, while the addition of fellow new boys Matthew Doherty and Pa Kujabi helped Paul Hanlon and denied Killie too many avenues to explore, signalling a raft of long-range efforts but very few real threatening shots.
Even as the minutes ticked down, with the solitary goal separating the sides, there was no panic in the Hibs ranks, no evidence of the jitters which have crippled them in the past. On the contrary, they were chasing down loose balls, sticking tightly to their counterparts and charging down shots.
They stopped Killie stretching the game, snuffing out the threat out wide with Tom Soares and David Wotherspoon instead emerging as the widemen posing the bigger questions out on the flanks.
Shiels stated that his men had “killed” Hibs with their passing and movement but the real truth was that Hibs won the game with their 15th minute goal then suffocated Killie.
There are still frailties in the Hibs side but they are no longer in defence. Dunfermline’s Jim Macintyre was in the crowd and he will have left troubled by what he saw. Hibs previously looked like they would be keeping them company in the relegation battle long-term but, after yesterday, that is no longer a given.