Hibs find themselves 14 points adrift of Rangers in the Championship title race with nine matches remaining. How did their challenge become so unstuck?
OPENING DAY DEFEAT
Hibs started the season on the backfoot. An embarrassing loss at home to Rangers in the Petrofac Cup could be dismissed due to the unimportance of the competition, but it suggested one club was ready for a Championship title challenge - and it wasn’t Alan Stubbs’ side. With the Scott Allan transfer saga rumbling on, Hibs arrived at Dumbarton for their opening league game of the season with a sense of unease already building among fans. The Sons took an early lead, only for Dominique Malonga to equalise shortly after. A Willie Gibson free-kick restored the home side’s advantage and Hibs failed to respond. One game in, no points on the board. Rangers, meanwhile, had cruised to a 3-1 win over St Mirren the night before.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES IN GOVAN
Despite a lackluster start, there were obvious signs that Alan Stubbs had assembled a team that could and would cause Rangers problems. When they arrived at Ibrox on August 23 for the first league meeting between the two, Hibs were three points behind Mark Warburton’s side. For much of the opening 60 minutes, Hibs played with confidence and created two glorious chances to take the lead but failed to take either. Despite looking the better team, the Leith men went a goal down on 66 minutes when James Tavernier’s free kick deceived goalkeeper Mark Oxley. In a game they could have won, Hibs left with nothing and now faced a six-point gap between themselves and Rangers.
FAILURE TO CAPITALISE ON IBROX LEAD
Hibs’ fortunes took an immediate upswing following that disappointing showing. With most football writers having already having crowned Rangers champions, a team supposedly lacking in bottle set about proving their critics wrong and amassed a consistent run of victories - including a home win against their title rivals in October. Warburton’s men suddenly did not look so invincible. The stage was set for an eagerly-awaited fixture at Ibrox on December 28. The two teams were now only separated by goal difference, with 41 points apiece. Hibs took the lead on 17 minutes and appeared to be in control of the match, but a slack pass from Fraser Fyvie allowed Jason Holt in to score the equaliser. Stubbs’ side looked deflated as the pendulum firmly swung back in Rangers’ favour, and went on to lose 4-2.
LIVI LET DOWN
Despite another Ibrox set-back, no one was writing off Hibs’ title credentials just yet. Easter Road had become a fortress, with no team managing to record a win there since Rangers’ victory in July. A home game generally meant three points for the Hibees. But away from Leith, there were problems. A 1-1 draw at Falkirk in January - another game that could have been won - was followed by a narrow 1-0 win at Morton. Stubbs’ men next travelled to Almondvale for a Saturday evening game against Livingston. They were handed a massive pre-match motivation by the news Rangers had failed to beat basement boys Alloa Athletic, meaning the opportunity was there to reduce the gap to five points. But Hibs failed to break Livingston down in what was a dire game played in dreadful weather. The resulting 0-0 draw was a huge disappointment to those of a green persuasion.
A WEEK FROM HELL
Those dropped points were quickly forgotten by Hibs fans as their team clocked up a series of impressive results in knock-out competitions. St Johnstone were coolly dispatched at Tynecastle in the League Cup semi-final, before an incredible comeback at the same venue saw Hibs snatch a draw against city rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup. Following a memorable win in the resulting replay, Stubbs’ team were basking in glowing praise from the football press. But all this cup action meant league fixtures were beginning to pile up. What followed was a week from hell for Hibees. First, Morton clinically took their chances at Easter Road to record a shock 3-0 win on February 24. Three days later, Hibs slipped to another defeat at Dumbarton, despite looking the better side. The coup de grace followed on March 1, with a 1-0 defeat at Queen of the South. Hibs now find themselves 14 points adrift with only nine league games remaining.