Tension takes its toll as Hibs win nervy play-off battle

Hibs manager Alan Stubbs commiserates with Raith's Harry Panayiotou. Picture: SNS
Hibs manager Alan Stubbs commiserates with Raith's Harry Panayiotou. Picture: SNS
  • Hibs scorers: McGinn 8, McGregor 12
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Peter Houston slipped away with a couple of minutes left, clearly more confident than the understandably edgy Hibs fans that their team would prevail.

Alan Stubbs later railed against those surprised by the presence of tension in the second leg of a play-off match so delicately balanced.

“I’ve never been to a football ground where there’s been no tension,” the Hibs manager observed.

Hibs got there in the end. Houston might have marked down in his notes that in order to progress to the play-off final, his Falkirk side would be advised to prey on these fears tomorrow evening at Easter Road. Raith’s problem was they could not, not to the maximum at least.

Houston will be back at the stadium for the first leg of the semi-final play-off, occupying a seat rather closer to the pitch. To his right will be Stubbs in the latest chapter of a newly-established rivalry.

Tomorrow will be the tenth game between their sides since the start of last season. Three of their four meetings to date this season have been draws. More significantly in terms of who will emerge triumphant from their semi-final play-off, it counts as game 52 of Hibs’ exhausting season. They still have a potential five more “cup finals” to play.

No wonder the Hibs players were ordered to plunge into ice baths almost as soon as Saturday’s game ended. A quick wave to the fans and then it was a case of chattering teeth rather than trembling knees.

“You are at a big club. In this situation, you are going to feel nerves from the crowd,” said John McGinn later. “But that’s when you have to puff your chest out and be big enough to deal with it. I think we just overdid it at times, myself included.”

The ice baths are a fact of a professional footballer’s life, particularly at this fixture-heavy stage of Hibs’ season, when recovery means everything.

“It’s freezing, obviously,” said McGinn. “But it all counts. If it gives us that extra 2 per cent on Tuesday night, it’ll be worth it. We need all the rest and recovery we can get.”

There are a few obvious candidates when it comes to complaining about the ice bath. You could probably have a guess at the prime culprits…”

“But it’s a team game, so nobody gets to miss out. If one of us is in, we’re all in.”

It was cold enough in the stands on Saturday. But there was plenty heat generated on the pitch in a fiercely-contested second leg.

The watching Houston will have enjoyed the fact nothing was coming very easily for anyone. It was a grind of match and while Hibs got there in the end, they were pushed all the way by visitors who made up what they lacked in quality with effort.

Raith will rue a start to the game in which the advantage they accrued last Wednesday night was overturned within minutes. It was sloppy defending that speared them. There was a huge element of misfortune in McGinn’s deflected effort looping into the top corner. Goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert knew it was a lost cause and didn’t even move. But the killer second goal was the product of a very cheaply conceded corner by James Craigen, who ran the ball out of play instead of leathering it up the park.

Liam Henderson’s set-piece was headed into the net by Darren McGregor. Suddenly Hibs were the ones defending an aggregate lead and they managed to see out the remaining 78 or so minutes in a fairly straightforward manner. However, adding to the anxiety in the stands, they rarely looked like adding to their lead.

After McGregor’s goal, only Liam Henderson came close until David Gray’s header bashed back off a post late on. If Hibs were intentionally playing within themselves to retain energy for future assignments, then the tactic worked. But it seemed more likely they were being pinned further and further back by Raith’s industry rather than their own commitment to preserving energy.

The visitors could not take advantage of the chances that came their way, however. Louis Longridge wasted the best of them when he took too long to pull the trigger, allowing McGregor to make a goal-saving tackle. Harry Panayiotou, the hero of the first leg, pushed his through ball too far in front of fellow substitute Mark Stewart to wreck a very promising four-versus-two break.

Perhaps underlining why the visitors finished fourth in the league, eight points behind Hibs, they lacked the extra bit of class required to really hurt the hosts.

But as Stubbs pointed out, rarely do you get a match devoid of tension. It’s also common that such an important match is lent extra narrative in the form of two apparently squabbling managers. As if to expose the pantomime nature of these remarks, Stubbs and Ray McKinnon walked off arm in arm at the end, with McKinnon having applauded the away fans, probably for the last time as Raith manager. His players have done him proud throughout the season, and did so again on Saturday.

There were enough moments of concern for Hibs fans to urge those with the ball to head for a corner flag in the dying moments. But their team was solid for the most part. Two cup finals down, five more (hopefully) to go.

“We can all see the prize at the end of it,” said McGinn. “We all know it’s worth the effort.”