Jack Ross looking for more strength in depth as depleted squad struggles to see off Cove Rangers 2-1 in Betfred Cup
Jack Ross was probably only half-joking when he offered his post-match assessment that he and assistant John Potter were dangerously close to being called into the mix for Tuesday night’s Betfred Cup fixture at Forfar.
While there is pride in having players recognised by their respective countries, international call us have had an impact when it comes to the strength and depth he has had and will continue to have at his disposal for the first of the season’s cup competitions.
Especially, when, with money tight and quality given precedence over quantity when he was making his summer signings, he did not have a rich seam of talent to keep mining.
Add to that injuries and niggles and he has some magic to weave before Hibs take to the pitch in a few days’ time. That or he better start dusting down his boots.
Against Brora Rangers midweek, options were limited. Against Cove Rangers numbers were further reduced and they kept dwindling the longer the match went on.
Which does leave him with conundrums when it comes to selecting the starting line up for Station Park, let alone filling the bench.
And whoever takes to the pitch will have to deliver a better level of performance than the one served up in the first half of the contest against Paul Hartley’s League One side.
Visibly riled by the display, Ross, unsurprisingly, did not miss his charges when he weighed in with his half-time pep talk and they responded with a superior showing after the break.
Some of that was due to a change in formation, and a change in personnel, while those who stayed on the pitch, gave their hosts a bit more to chew on as they completed their first competitive match since March.
Drey Wright had started for HIbs despite not being fully fit. It proved to be a poor decision as the winger contributed little. Effectively a man down, his sub-standard showing negated any benefits Hibs hoped to get from stringing five across the middle of the park. In theory they should have out-numbered their rivals in that department, giving them greater control of proceedings but with Wright nowhere near his best and midweek hero Stevie Mallan a slow starter, that advantage did not readily translate.
There was little surprise then when, just 17 minutes in, stand in keeper Dillon Barnes conceded his second freekick in successive games.
Sluggish, perhaps due to so many fringe players playing two games back to back after such a lengthy spell on the sidelines awaiting their opportunity, the spark was missing from Hibs’ play.
Paul Hanlon and Jamie Murphy has joined Joe Newell on the casualty list after the Brora match and in the former’s absence, Ross opted for a three-man backline that saw Lewis Stevenson deployed on the left, Darren McGregor in the central berth and David Gray utiised on the right. But against fluid Cove frontline, who liked to press and pass around them, they did not look comfortable and Stephen McGinn had to try to provide cover.
At the start of the second half, with Wright off and Jamie Gullen on to offer something on that left flank, the Hbs management also chose to move Merker Halberg back to tuck into the right back zone and give the side a more solid structure.
With their ears still ringing from the half-time team talk and with a more solid foundation to build from, they also benefited from some signs of fatigue in the home ranks and from some clinical finishing that offered a glimpse of the class that had been missing from a lot of their play.
While other areas of the team were, obviously, being padded out with second string squad members, the same could not be said of the nib of their attack.
Leading the line were Kevin Nsbet and Christian Doidge, who have started the season in the kind of form that has allowed them to torment top tier sides and seen both touted for international recognition. It was a day where neither were at their best, although they could, justifiably, point to the paucity of quality ammunition, from the wings in particular, as a contributing factor.
That did improve after the interval and the first sign that they were unwilling to accept defeat came, in the 49th minute, when the Leith side kickstarted their comeback.
It was a welcome goal for young Gullan, who had been growing in stature and confidence prior to lockdown but has had to start with a clean slate again this term. A well-placed square bar from Martin Boyle found him in the perfect spot to side foot it into the net.
The second came 11 minutes later and proved to be the match winner. That came courtesy of Kevin Nisbet, a lovely volley that flicked up and over the Cove keeper and nestled in the goal.
Although Hartley’s men refused to lie down there was greater solidity to the Hibs rearguard in that second half, and they limited the opportunities the lower league side could conjure up. There was one final fright, though, when Barnes had to tip a dipping long-range effort over the bar. That gave Hibs the victory and reiterated the view that even when they have not played well this term they have never given up.
But Ross will be keeping everything crossed that he can add some reinforcements into the mix for the next game. Even if he does stop short of pulling on the boots himself.
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