THE pained look of Hibernian full-back David Gray as he dissected a ghoulish spectacle was that of a haunted man. The spectre of Hearts’ Championship romp last season hung over him. .
Gray had spent pre-season banging on about the necessity of not playing catch-up in the second tier. About how the Easter Road club could not allow a scenario to develop as did last year when the Tynecastle men remorselessly racked up wins as their bitter rivals found themselves on the rack through falling in four of their first six games. Early impressions of a Rangers that have already trounced their Leith title rivals suggest they won’t present Alan Stubbs’ men with too many opportunities to claw back a sizeable gap. Hibs, at all costs, have to prevent one opening up then.
Stubbs, even in taking a wrecking ball to the efforts of his players with a conviction they all too painfully lacked, was at pains to stress the defeat in Dumbarton made for an unwanted outcome to a first league game, and nothing more. Gray was willing to place the reverse in a more alarming context, drawing unwelcome parallels with a year ago, when, incidentally, Hibs won their first Championship fixture.
“That was half the battle last year. Hearts managed to run away quickly as we started so poorly, so we know we need to get back to basics in training this week,” he said.
“Momentum comes from results, and we didn’t get that at the first opportunity so we need to get that turned round as quickly as possible.
“We wanted to begin the season well and haven’t done that. We started really poorly against Dumbarton, gave away two goals from set-pieces – which we shouldn’t be doing – and were always playing catch-up from there.
“We did not create enough to score goals. They did well defending their lead but we have to look at ourselves and we weren’t good enough.”
What caused real consternation among those Hibs followers who travelled through to the weekend league opener is that, against a part-time team new manager Stevie Aitken has put together in six weeks, no department of the visiting side functioned properly.
The saga – or “farce” as Stubbs put it – of Rangers repeatedly lodging below- value bids for a Scott Allan who wants to leave for the Ibrox side but won’t be allowed to by Hibs has proved unsettling for the Leith club. And unsettling for the midfielder. So desperate was he to show he was giving his all for the cause, he produced a display that was over-thought and over-wrought.
The Allan situation is an intractable problem for the Easter Road club. For all that Stubbs publicly maintains otherwise, if Hibs received top dollar for a player who can sign a pre-contract in January, they would surely be silly not to sell him.
But engineering good openings eluded him, and he was one of the real issues for Hibs on Saturday.
Dumbarton, for all that they sat in to protect a lead late on, troubled their opposing backline whenever they put the ball in the box.
Liam Fontaine and Paul Hanlon never seemed to have the measure of Steven Craig and Gordon Smith and were completely wrong-footed in allowing Gregor Buchanan to divert in a free-kick driven low across goal by Willie Gibson after three minutes.
Although Gibson made a sweet contact with the 22-yard free-kick that earned Dumbarton their second goal early in the second period, Hibs keeper Mark Oxley should have presented himself as a tougher obstacle; a weak hand in a ball well inside the goal frame compounding the visitors’ defensive weaknesses.
Not that they were strong in either attack or defence, despite Dominique Malonga supplying a sumptuous finish to even up the scores inside a quarter of an hour. The service both to the Congolese international and Jason Cummings was poor – Stubbs despairing at Hibs’ inability to deliver balls from wide areas to other than opposition players – but the pair don’t look as if they will sniff out goals. Maybe that is harsh when they bagged 37 between them last season. Maybe the teasing centres that Dylan McGeouch was able to supply were a factor in that tally, and a reason why Stubbs is believed keen to fashion a deal with Celtic that would see the midfielder return to Easter Road.
The crumbs of comfort from Saturday will be the driving second-half display from John McGinn. The application and urgency he demonstrated makes him a certain starter when Morton visit Easter Road on Saturday. Moreover, with such as the creative talent Danny Carmichael to be bedded in, there is reason to suppose that Hibs will be able to produce much better than they did in the first league outing. Mind you, with their Dumbarton display so ham-fisted, that isn’t saying much.