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Play-off pain as Hibernian lose out

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From gloomy Govan to sunny Leith, the Hibees came and went, the overall result was most important and one which summed up the whole season in two excruciating matches.

The first leg at Ibrox saw both sides match up with diamond midfields and this allowed for the game to be an open contest. Hibs could and should have been ahead when Jason Cummings fluffed his lines but as the game ebbed and flowed from one end to another it looked as if both sides would settle for a scoreless opening period.

That was until Nicky Clark punctuated proceedings tapping home inside the six yard box. In the lead up to the goal Scott Robertson was fouled 35 yards from goal, the referee – Callum Murray – waved play on, Robertson battled back and won the ball before losing possession and handing the initiative back to the home side. They attacked with purpose down the right hand side, exploiting Lewis Stevenson, who had been dragged inside to prevent Vuckic from shooting, Foster used the space well and found Clark who touched home as the raucous atmosphere shook Ibrox to it’s foundations.

Murray should have gave the free kick but after having the chance to clear their lines Hibs only have themselves to blame.

Half time came and went the game was still open but Hibs were the ones who pushed, to find the all important equaliser. Malonga and Cummings again guilty of wasting chances before they were hit by a sucker punch.

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Kenny Miller claimed the goal with an expertly taken finish but once again it was slack on Hibs part. The ball spun up 25 yards from goal it was nodded forward in to the area, the ball coming off Lee Wallace on the way through before landing at the feet of Miller, the Hibs defence were hesitant perhaps waiting on a flag but just as at Easter Road earlier in the season Miller played on and guided the ball beyond Oxley to put Rangers in a commanding position.

The touch off Wallace was vital, Miller was offside but the linesman can be spared any wrongdoing as it was extremely hard to call in real time. Stubbs and his team will have been disappointed in the way they conceded the two goals and despite playing some fantastic stuff they failed to score alas leaving them with a mountain to climb in the return leg only 60 hours or so later in the capital.

Rangers brought back Lee McCulloch in place of goalscorer Nicky Clark in a bid to shut up shop and defend their lead. Hibs had Dylan McGeouch back in the starting eleven at the expense of Scott Robertson as they went in search of the two goals which would at least push the tie in to extra time.

The boys in green threw everything at Rangers with better finishing and decision making they would have been out of sight within twenty minutes, Rangers were on the ropes but the first goal proved elusive as it has done on so many occasions this season.

When the chips have been down, no matter how they’ve gambled Hibs have more often than not failed to come up with the winning hand. McCulloch, Zaliukas and McGregor were up against it. Law, Murdoch et al couldn’t get close to their Hibs counterparts. Allan, Fyvie and McGeouch were dominating the ball and terrorising Rangers, Malonga and Cummings were once again wasteful in front of goal and despite the latter scoring a sublime goal the two goal lead Rangers held proved insurmountable and the Gers moved on to the play-off final and a two-legged tie against Motherwell.

Hibs win pre-season friendly at Forthbank.  © Phil McCloy

Hibernian tried in vain to recover a situation that they caused through slack defending and poor finishing, it was a feeling of resignation come the final whistle and perhaps it was disappointingly fitting that the defining problems of their season was once again the letdown when under pressure to succeed.

A good point at which to summarise our season then and look back at the positives and negatives of the 2014-15 season in the Scottish Championship…

Season 2014-15 Review

Overachieve or underachieve?

At the beginning of the season I thought we’d be down in the Championship for 3 or 4 years, I expected Hearts to win the league and I honestly didn’t think Stubbs would be able to put together a squad with such quality. As August ended it looked like I was going to be proved correct.

September came though and the Autumn seen me and many other Hibs supporters fall back in love with our club. Some fantastic results most notably against Rangers meant that there was a positive air around Easter Road for the first time in a few years. Dismal defeats early on made way for swashbuckling football that were unfrotunately punctuated by draws and cheap goals. The frugality of our squad meant that the season ended in an unfortunate manner but given where we’ve came from it was, in my opinion, as best we could have hoped.

Alan Stubbs’ performance?

When Stubbs arrived at Easter Road he was presented with a fragile squad low on confidence and only nine deep, two of them were to leave sharply and the gaffer was left to piece together a team from a limited budget and attempt to mount a challenge to Hearts and Rangers.

His signings have, with a couple of exceptions, all been of a quality which has enhanced the whole club. David Gray, Liam Fontaine, Scott Allan and Fraser Fyvie are all Scottish Premiership quality if not higher.

In his first year hopefully he will have learnt from his mistakes though and those include making or failing to make substitutions. Going right back to the beginning of the season he should have subbed Robertson before he was sent off at Tynie all the way to Ibrox, in the play-off, he persisted too long with Cummings but he has been very unlucky with injuires to important players at vital times through the season also.

Very impressed by his manner, the way he talks to the media and his determined attitude but next season is massive for not only Alan Stubbs but the whole club.

Stand-out players?

The obvious one on everybody’s lips is the mercurial Scott Allan, the dazzling ability of Allan often lit up our Championship season but with a tendency to go quiet in spells he was perhaps out-shone on the consistency stakes by defenders David Gray, Liam Fontaine and Lewis Stevenson.

Gray, who yesterday (Tuesday), signed an extended deal and Fontaine were signed by Stubbs and neither were players who came with much of a reputation. Fontaine had done okay as a youngster, Gray after leaving Manchester United as a kid had floundered around the lower reaches of the English leagues but both arrived at Easter Road looking to prove wrong their doubters.

They were strong in the tackle, commanding as leaders and came up with a few goals between them also. A superb debut season from two of Stubbs’ imports. Hopefully Fontaine follows Gray’s lead and signs a new deal.

Further to the left of the defence and to Lewis Stevenson. Often he has polarised the Hibs support with many thinking positively about a player who has survived manager after manager and others believing he was a reason behind our failings. I always edged towards the latter, I possibly still do but this season he has, up til late, been very good. The fall into the Championship seemed to suit Lewis and he provided width on the left wing when at full back or wing back, won the majority of his aerial duels and was the “fittest he’d ever been” out of contract this summer it remains to be seen whether he’ll still be at Hibs next season.

Players with more to prove?

The time to be negative around Hibernian has moved on so I will try not to be too damning and in fact when I look back I wouldn’t say anyone really let us or themselves down. Moving on I’d like to see Alex Harris, Sam Stanton and Danny Handling prove their undoubted potential.

Harris’ career was hampered somewhat by the thug that is Shaun Hutchison and upon recovering from his injury Messrs Butcher and Malpas ruined what confidence he had left. His loan move to Dundee started well but stalled towards the end of the season and I’d say that the next 6 months of his career will prove critical for the player.

Stanton and Handling are two very talented youngsters who have the technical ability to succeed but do they have the correct mentality when it comes to producing the goods at the very top? They both possess a fantastic passing range, an eye for goal and confidence when appearing for the development team but in the cutthroat world that is the Easter Road starting XI they struggle with the expectation that is placed on their shoulders.

A loan move for both may be in the offing but I have no doubt that in the right environment both would flourish.

What next for the club?

The club need to build on the positivity that is slowly beginning to envelope the club. They are on borrowed time when it comes to getting things right so they must continue to build bridges whilst maintaining a sense of perspective.

The supporters will demand a lot when it comes to retaining players and striving for the top but these damands must be negated by the knowledge that a second term in the Championship will hamper the club. Anything longer than that will ruin the business plan both on and off the field.

The share issue is massive and the supporters must back this for the club to continue moving forward. The sales of season tickets is also an imperatve when it comes to ensuring Stubbs’ budget is competitive not only in this league but in the league above when we get back to where we belong.

It would be fantastic to see the club sign up our players to longer term deals and provide the supporters with a real sense of belief but the supporters need to do their bit as well.

It’s about doing what is right for Hibernian not a time for personal grievances or silly arguments. To move forward we must do so as one.

Expectations for next season?

Promotion, promotion, promotion.

Nothing else needs said, this is a must for Hibernian in season 2015-16.

Persevere!!

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