After winning at the tricky places, after beating Rangers, after ending Aberdeen’s unbeaten run and dumping two Premier League teams out of the League Cup, Hibernian couldn’t slip up at bottom-of-the-table Alloa Athletic, could they?
Well they didn’t, and the men from Leith ended the afternoon level at the top of the Championship, which will have made them forget the frustration and jitteriness in this display before star man John McGinn drove them on to their eighth league win in a row, Jason Cummings scoring the all-important goal on the hour-mark.
At the beginning of the month Hibs could have fallen 11 points behind Rangers but now they’re neck-and-neck with them, although manager Alan Stubbs was trying to play down the significance of this surge. “It makes the win all the sweeter when we find out other results have gone our way,” he said. “But – and this is going to sound a little bit boring, I know – we’re just concentrating on ourselves.”
Stubbs won’t entertain talk of titles, of course, but Alloa manager Danny Lennon reckons Hibs could end up champions. After praising his own team for getting back their pride after a couple of heavy defeats, he said: “This is a very, very good Hibs side who have the potential to win the league.”
Hibs came a cropper on an early visit to the Indrodrill Stadium last season, while still adjusting to life in the deep Championship interior, and on the train journey home via a long delay at Stirling, one fan uttered the memorable wail:
“I dinnae like central Scotland. I need to see coast!” After that they dealt with Alloa straightforwardly enough, and Cummings and James Keatings were seeking to make it six wins in a row against the Wasps.
Earlier in the day there had been the stunning revelation that the goal-getters had been crimping each other’s hair, apparently for a bet. Whatever works for you, I suppose, but there was little evidence of any bonding between them, far less a romance, when Keatings reprimanded his partner for failing to set him up.
If any criticism could be directed at Hibs it was in their slowish starts to recent games, and whether it was the raw weather – there was snow on the Ochils – or that officially notorious plastic pitch, this was another one. McGinn was the brightest of their forward-thinking players and went close with a deflected shot. Then came a real chance when the Scotland Under-21 captain exploded along the byline and set up Cummings whose sclaff presented Dominique Malonga with an even better chance, but he blasted his shot from inside the six-yard box when a more subtle approach was advisable.
Alloa had been having a hellish time of it. Only one win all season, only seven goals scored, and nine conceded in the previous two games. In his programme notes, Lennon had remarked: “It takes a courageous man to look beyond his current circumstances and believe he has the fight to improve his position.” Michael Chopra, their exotic, gnarled striker, tried to improve his measly goal rate – just the one so far – by dropping deeper. An opening finally presented itself but his shot squirted off his foot for a throw-in.
Hibs at least had got into second gear. Keatings, Lewis Stevenson and Marvin Bartley all had efforts but McGinn went closest, forcing a decent parry from Andy McNeil. The midfielder’s stooped running style doesn’t hint at speed, strength or a lovely feint of the shoulder, but he’s got all three. He couldn’t win the game all by himself, however.
In the second half his short backpass gave Alloa their first real glimpse of goal. McGinn was quickly back up the business end, providing a chance for Liam Fontaine whose shot was tipped over by David Crawford who’d replaced McNeil.
Then, just as Alloa were getting more adventurous and thinking they might capitalise on Hibs throwing everyone forward – and just as the away fans were wondering if another gloomy journey home was in the wind – McGinn, from behind halfway, fed Cummings on a breakaway and the latter drilled home his 14th goal of the season.
“You might have thought Jason still had a bit to do but I was confident there was only going to be one outcome,” said Stubbs.