For the second year in succession, Martin Boyle’s birthday has coincided with a weekend when the Championship promotion pendulum has swung firmly in his favour.
Twelve months ago, on the day after he turned 21, Dundee won at Alloa Athletic and then benefited from Hamilton Accies’ defeat at Dumbarton to go into the final day knowing a victory would secure the title.
Now, a year on, Boyle’s celebrations, as well as talks regarding his own future, are on hold as he bids to help Hibernian reach the top flight. The Easter Road side’s prospects look brighter following Saturday’s 4-1 romp against Alloa, in which Boyle played a prominent part on his 22nd birthday.
“Last year I couldn’t celebrate my 21st because we had a crucial game against Alloa at their place coming up and we were chasing the league title,” he reflected following Saturday’s game. “Paul Hartley wouldn’t let anyone go out so I just stayed in on my birthday.
“I got to celebrate eventually the following week [after beating Dumbarton],” he added. “But I’ll probably just keep my head down [this year] as well because there’s still much to be done in the season.”
Indeed there is. After doing what they needed to do on Saturday and then hearing of Rangers’ struggles, Hibs know that finishing second – the long-time aim given Hearts’ runaway success this season – is within their grasp.
Not even the news of Rangers’ late equaliser against Falkirk, delivered across the Tannoy system as the players left the pitch, could puncture the mood of optimism. Hibs’ fate is still very much in their own hands. Victory on Saturday at Falkirk guarantees second place, although this position in itself guarantees little, as manager Alan Stubbs sought to point out afterwards.
He pondered the question of whether playing two fewer play-off games is an advantage or not, concluding that it was still too early to tell. “Maybe we will know more in ten years’ time,” he suggested. As it stands, there is only the example of last season to consider.
But as omens go, it is a good one as far as Hibs are concerned. Hamilton Accies achieved their ultimate ambition of promotion to the Premiership by finishing second, and negotiating two play-off ties rather than three. On the basis of the only evidence available, Hibs are well positioned. If they can secure a win this weekend at their old foes Falkirk then it does not matter how Rangers fare against Hearts.
No-one at Easter Road needs reminded of their suffering at the hands of Peter Houston’s side this season. Boyle provided an extra note of caution. His personal record against Falkirk is even worse than Hibs’ own success rate, which currently stands at no wins in four meetings this season, including the recent painful Scottish Cup semi-final defeat.
Boyle has only featured in one of these games, after joining Hibs from Dundee in January. But he played in three of Dundee’s four meetings against the same side last season, finishing on the losing side on each occasion.
So when he was asked on Saturday what is it about the team that spooks Hibs so, Boyle joked that he is the one with the Falkirk phobia. “It was the same with Dundee last season,” he said. “So maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the jinx? Maybe I should be benched, I don’t know. But it’s a difficult place to go, even if they are not in the play-offs now. They will still want to end the season on a high.”
Boyle opened the scoring and was a constant thorn in Alloa’s side with a display that will have again prompted Hibs fans to wonder whether the currently on-loan player is worth signing on a permanent contract. According to the winger, this question is for another day.
“I’ve not had any discussions with either club but I’m enjoying it here,” he said. “Would I like to stay here? Definitely, it’s a fantastic club but we will need to wait and see what happens.
“We all want the same aim. We want promotion. I’ve got a wee taste, a wee hunger for winning titles. We’ve got a fantastic opportunity to go up through the play-offs. It’s a great bunch of lads here and I’ve settled well.”
Despite Saturday’s commanding victory, Hibs are no nearer knowing where they will be playing next season, so Boyle understands that budget discussions will be scheduled for a later date.
Such uncertainty is not exclusive to the Easter Road side. Alloa dropped to the bottom as a result of Saturday’s defeat combined with Livingston’s convincing 4-0 win over Raith Rovers. However, victory this weekend over Cowdenbeath will at least guarantee avoiding automatic relegation.
Striker Liam Buchanan, a Hibs fan, expressed disappointment at the way Alloa started on Saturday, but sourced some comfort from a more coherent second-half display. “We let ourselves down in the first half,” he said.
Hibs took fully half an hour to open the scoring through Boyle and had passed up numerous chances to break the deadlock before then, with Dominique Malonga the principal offender. A cross-cum-shot by Liam Craig after Scott Allan’s quickly-taken free kick increased their lead shortly before half-time and Jason Cummings tapped in a third on the hour mark. Malonga finally got on the scoresheet ten minutes later from equally close-range.
Iain Flannigan had already pulled a goal back for Alloa, taking advantage of that old Hibs weakness for defending crosses into the box identified by Peter Houston last weekend. This caused a brief spat to erupt between the Falkirk manager and Stubbs, one that is sure to be revisited this week in the countdown to another test of Hibs’ mettle.