THE Hibernian mantra remains that, regardless of whether they finish second or third in the SPFL Championship, they are more than capable of winning promotion to the top flight.
However, after another weekend in which they failed to beat one of the sides who could occupy the final berth in the top four, it appears more imperative than ever that they do secure the runners-up spot to Hearts.
Alan Stubbs’ men, who had racked up 15 games unbeaten prior to their defeat by Rangers eight days ago, have won just two of their ten games against Queen of the South, Falkirk and Raith Rovers this season. The case for securing second spot, thus avoiding a two-legged play-off with one of those sides, is a compelling one.
Saturday’s outing was exactly the kind of infuriating afternoon which peppered the first half of Hibs’ campaign, with the visitors largely dominating the fixture, creating a swathe of chances – but ultimately relinquishing points in careless fashion.
They managed to strike the post, the bar and the goalkeeper on numerous occasions but, crucially, only rippled the net once, when Fraser Fyvie cancelled out a spectacular volley by Mark Stewart.
The match statistics were rendered moot – the capital club registered 20 shots – when Lewis Vaughan, a boyhood Hibs fan and a young forward of considerable promise, bundled home a late winner for Raith. It is a movie David Gray has been in before.
“I think we started really well in the match and played some really good stuff. I think any neutral watching would have told you we should have won the game,” reflected the Hibs vice-captain.
“Too many times this season we’ve absolutely dominated games, created chances and not got the win.
“If you don’t turn chances into goals then it can come back and bite you in the bum and that’s what happened.
“However, I would be more worried if we hadn’t created chances. We’ll go again and work hard in training and make sure we put it right.
“If we keep playing as we did on Saturday then we won’t be far away. Ideally, you want to finish second – but our objective at the start of the season was to get promoted and we’re still on course to do that, so we just need to build momentum again.”
They had plenty of “momentum” during a bright, inventive first half which could, and should, have provided Hibs with a handsome lead at the interval.
Gray, a constant threat for the visitors, struck the post with a low shot after just seven minutes after latching on to a lovely pass by Dominique Malonga.
They swapped roles midway through the first half, with Gray this time finding the rangy Congo internationalist with a fine cross which Malonga headed against the bar.
Dylan McGeouch also stung the palms of Rovers goalkeeper David McGurn, while Keith Watson saw a goalbound header cleared off the line by Raith’s Paul Watson.
Rovers claimed the lead with their first serious attack, Stewart connecting with a Jason Thomson delivery to send a stunning volley past Mark Oxley from 14 yards.
Fyvie restored parity three minutes later, drilling a left-footed shot beyond McGurn after a deflected Scott Allan drive had spun kindly into his path inside the box.
Gray then passed up a golden opportunity to give Hibs the lead, latching on to a sumptuous Allan through ball and firing a low shot straight into the arms of McGurn from a eight yards.
Young Vaughan made Hibs pay for their profligacy with six minutes left on the clock, reacting quickest to Oxley parrying a low Ryan Conroy shot and bundling the ball over the line.
Inevitably, given the fraught fight for second spot, every Hibs result – good or bad – will be seen through the prism of how Rangers do, and vice-versa.
However, Gray is adamant the Ibrox club’s 4-1 win over Cowdenbeath on Saturday, and their progress under Stuart McCall, is of no concern to him, despite Rangers moving level on points with Hibs with a game in hand.
“I’m not interested in who are considered to be the favourites for second place,” the former Manchester United youngster said. “We look after ourselves and we’ve got Queen of the South next, which is a big game.
“Rangers are a massive club and people are going on about the new manager going in there, but we just have to concentrate on ourselves and we believe we are on course to meet our targets.”
At least there was one happy Hibbie at Stark’s Park on Saturday – match-winner Vaughan.
“I had a season ticket when I was younger and was at Easter Road every other week,” recalled the 19-year-old. “Five or six of my friends would have been in the away section on Saturday, actually – so they’ll not be too happy!
“I’m from the era of Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor, Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson – that generation of players. I was a regular at the Hibs games until I started playing Saturday football with Raith Rovers.
“I’m a Hibs fan, but I need to do my job, which is scoring goals for Raith. I still hope Hibs get second spot, you never stop supporting your team – but any time I come up against them I’ll be looking to get the win for Rovers.”