HAVING watched Hibernian emerge victorious from a dogged, if underwhelming, performance against bottom club Livingston, Alan Stubbs was only interested in focusing on the positives as his side stretched their winning run to four games.
After wasting some gilt-edged early chances, Hibs looked like they had set an assured course to victory when Liam Henderson netted with a beautiful curled free-kick five minutes into the second half. However, chances to kill the game off never transpired and fans became understandably anxious when the hosts piled men forward late in the game, looking for an equaliser.
Stubbs admitted his side had not been at “their fluent best”, but praised his back four for once again earning them three points and hailed the mental toughness of a very young squad to grind out another close win. He was also thoroughly pleased with the contribution of his 19-year-old match-winner.
“Worthy of winning any game,” Stubbs said of Henderson’s goal. “He’s got quality, that’s undoubted. He’s been doing that for the last ten days in training, and I’ve been waiting to see him put one in exactly the same place he’s been doing it in training. I keep telling him to take more shots and believe in himself. I was delighted to see it go in but I have to say I wasn’t surprised at it.
“The reason why we’ve won the game today was our ability to keep a clean sheet, and that’s given the lads confidence. They’ve had to deal with set-pieces, throw-ins and hopeful balls into the box, but we’ve dealt with it, and that’s the most pleasing aspect.”
Henderson’s arrival on loan was the silver lining from the all-encompassing dark cloud that was the Scott Allan transfer saga, and the midfielder’s eventual sale to Celtic. Hibs’ advantage over Rangers coming into this campaign was supposed to be the continuity from last season’s squad, a fabric ripped apart as soon as Allan’s head was turned by interest from Glasgow.
Against Livingston, Hibs began with a completely different midfield to the one that started the season. Henderson, Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn made up an energetic threesome in front of spoiler Marvin Bartley. There were flashes of a fluid and co-ordinated unit, though understandably they’re a group still figuring out each other’s nuances, and for long periods they were frustrated by their battling hosts.
It’s perhaps a big reason why Hibs have yet to hit the heights expected of title contenders, or even match some of their best play from last year, but they are picking up wins along the way as the team settles in, with a sequence of more resounding victories surely being just a matter of time.
“Obviously we’ve still to hit full stride, it’s still very early on in the season,” said Henderson. “I’ve come in and there’s a few other new boys and I would say we’ve gelled pretty quickly. That happens when you’ve got good footballers and players that can play nice football. But I reckon we’ve still got a bit to go. We’re all still young and we’re all still hungry to improve.
“We can do the ugly side of the game. We’ve got a lot of football players in the team but it shows we can mix it up and do the dirty side as well. To me, personally, the credit goes to the back four and [Mark] Oxley for the victory, even though I managed to get the goal.”
Before they can look to getting back their reputation of title contenders, and make Dave King regret his presumptuous words, there is the little matter of the League Cup and a meeting with the country’s most in-form team, Aberdeen. It’s an encounter both manager and new star pupil are relishing as they look forward to testing themselves and proving to the wider world Hibs belong alongside Wednesday’s opponents back in the Scottish Premiership.
“It’s a great game for us, I’m really looking forward to it,” said Stubbs. “It’s a chance for us to rub shoulders with the team that’s, at this moment in time, the top team. I’m sure it’ll be an entertaining game. I’ve got a lot of time for Derek McInnes. It’s no coincidence he’s getting the rewards at this moment in time, but I’m ready to have a go at a good team.”
Henderson added: “Aberdeen have started magnificently, but it’ll be a good gauge for us to see where we’re at. All the boys are looking forward to it and hopefully the fans can come out and support us in numbers.”