Alan Stubbs has managed to mould Hibernian into a consistent and hard to beat unit, writes David Hardie
There’s little doubt Hibs possess plenty of options up front, the array of talent available to Alan Stubbs the envy of many a manager. Jason Cummings has hogged the headline for weeks, his regular goal-scoring inevitably drawing comparison to the likes of Derek Riordan and Leigh Griffiths while many a scout has been dispatched to Easter Road to cast an eye over the youngster.
But Hibs are far from a one man band. James Keatings, having suffered an injury hit start to his Easter Road career, has overshadowed his team-mate in the past couple of weeks, not to mention the undoubted talents of Dominique Malonga even if his laid-back style divides opinion.
These three may be the frontline at the moment but, when fit, Stubbs will be able to call upon Farid El Alagui and Henri Anier while Martin Boyle does his best to impress as Jamie Insall continues to appear to be one for the future.
Hibs are certainly less porous than they were last season, currently having lost just ten goals in their 14 Championship matches so far, a record only bettered by leaders Rangers while they’ve negotiated their way to the semi-finals of the League Cup without conceding despite facing Premiership outfits Aberdeen and Dundee United.
Goalkeeper Mark Oxley has clocked up ten clean sheets so far, just six short of the total achieved in 46 matches last season, although he’ll no doubt be a little disappointed that number isn’t greater.
A settled defence has been the key, the same back four as last season provides the consistency of selection which leads to a trust among those players and goalkeeper, while the arrival of Darren McGregor has provided competition and cover both at right back and in the centre to the extent Jordon Forster has found it difficult to force his way back into the starting line-up.
Jason Cummings’ goals allied to that peroxide blonde hair of his have made the 20-year-old a stand out, his exploits on the pitch and his bubbly character - never short of a quotable quip - have made him a firm favourite with the fans.
But Alan Stubbs would undoubtedly stress the fact there’s no “I in team” with plenty of justification, his side capable of producing the sort of performances which have had many hail them as they best football playing outfit not only in the Championship but in the country with each of his players having made their own contribution.
However, week-by-week John McGinn is looking like the signing of this or any other season, the ex-St Mirren kid exuding an enthusiasm and appetite for the game which few can match. Of course there are still some rough edges as to be expected of one so young, but the flip side is that the 21-year-old can only get better. Hibs will be delighted to have him tied up on a four-year deal.
Alan Stubbs endured a tough baptism as the unexpected replacement for the sacked Terry Butcher, the former Celtic and Everton defender taking up his first managerial post only to discover that, following relegation, he’d inherited a squad containing barely enough players to field a team.
Quality over quantity, however, has been his mantra from day one. Time and again he’s been proved right, from the surprise signings of Scott Allan and then Fraser Fyvie, two boys tempted south by the bright lights only to return somewhat chastened joining a squad which has steadily grown in strength with a good number of those who few would have previously have heard of proving to be astute acquisitions.
Now the Edinburgh club possess, arguably, the strongest squad in the Championship, two players for every position giving the head coach plenty of options and the comfort of knowing that whichever player he choses is more than capable.
Stubbs is also a calming figure, sure of his own judgement and a gift for man-management which allows him, almost, to be “one of the boys” while maintaining his authority in the dressing room and beyond.
Must do better
As manager Alan Stubbs would tell you a football team never stops getting better, the notion that any side is perfect an unobtainable utopia for which you have to constantly strive.
There’s no doubt Hibs have made huge strides over the course in less than 18 months but, as Stubbs constantly points out, nothing has, as yet, been achieved.
Promotion is again the goal and while another slow start - but nothing to compare to last season - put Rangers firmly in the driving seat for the Championship title, Hibs have slowly but surely hauled themselves back into that particular race, not that Stubbs would accept for one second they were ever out of it.
Consistency is the key and with an unbeaten run stretching to 14 games Hibs can certainly claim to have found that priceless commodity, displaying an ability to win ugly when necessary and turning on the style when allowed to do so.
Slow starts to games, however, has proved to be a problem, Stubbs himself admitting his players can’t afford to give the opposition a goal of a start although, to be fair, they’ve overcome such a handicap more than once. A little more composure in front of goal wouldn’t go astray while Stubbs would like to see the decision making of what, predominantly, is a young side improve, particularly when it comes to the final pass.