Having been booed by their own fans both at half-time and the 90 minute mark, a mercurial Hibs side were perhaps fortunate to beat second division Greenock Morton after extra time and progress to the last eight of the Scottish League Cup.
Following a 6-1 thrashing at Rangers last weekend, Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom made six changes to his team, including a debut for 19-year-old Glenn Middleton, recently signed on loan. The young winger was one of the standout performers in a game which was clearly enjoyed more by the attackers than their defensive counterparts. Notable too was Florian Kamberi, linked this week with a transfer to Basel but still keen to do his bit for the Leith outfit, chipping in with two excellently taken goals to impress any Swiss scouts in attendance.
For Heckingbottom, who attributed the defeat at Ibrox to Rangers’s brilliance rather than his own team’s defensive frailties, this showing should be genuine cause for concern. His assistant Robbie Stockdale was relaxed but firm after the game, saying that “we took our foot off the gas” and that there are “certainly some things to work on”. Considering that Heckingbottom’s side managed to score two own goals and lose possession of the ball innumerable times around their own penalty area, the prospect of improving on last year’s fifth placed finish seems pretty remote without significant work at the back.
To make matters worse, defenders Darren McGregor and David Gray were both taken off injured, after 14 and 73 minutes respectively. There has been talk of signing a new striker, should Kamberi leave, but reinforcements in defense might have to be the priority before the transfer window shuts in a fortnight.
It all started so promisingly for the boys in green. They spent much of the first ten minutes camped in the Morton half, bombarding the 18 yard box with cross after cross, few of which succeeded in finding their target. There was some response from the visitors after that, with Bob McHugh, fresh off scoring a hat-trick in his last game for the club, causing problems for Hibs’s makeshift back line. Morton’s Reece Lyon squandered a great chance after a quarter of an hour, blasting over the bar from the edge of the area, and was made to rue his error when the deadlock was broken five minutes later.
Middleton, an old-school winger keen to stick to the touchline and take on the full back, had already been a nuisance for the Morton defence before he set up Scott Allan for a left-footed finish into the bottom corner. Chances for both clubs followed, with the visiting keeper Danny Rogers kept busy on his debut, before Josh Vela scored his first Hibernian goal, driving past a helpless Rogers after a great cutback from Daryl Horgan.
Home and dry, one would think. 2-0 up at home, looking comfortable against lower league opposition, Hibs seemed poised to join city rivals Hearts in the quarter finals. In the space of seven minutes, however, they crumbled. First, McHugh showed more desire than the Hibs centre backs to poke in a cross from the right, before a Lewis Stevenson own goal made it 2-2 on the stroke of half-time. Morton, though tenacious going forward, were flattered by this scoreline, and the home crowd made their feelings known, jeering their players as they skulked down the tunnel.
The away team started the second period looking more like the Premiership side, keeping possession well and stretching the Hibs fullbacks. This dominance didn’t last long, however, as Hibs soon took back control, Middleton and Horgan switching wings to great effect. On 54 minutes, Kamberi ran onto a long pass from Allan, chested it beyond an onrushing Rogers, and then stroked the ball into the empty net. 3-2: normal service resumed. Academy graduate Fraser Murray came on for Middleton with twelve minutes to go and looked just as lively as the man he replaced, testing Rogers from close range. The Morton goalie made a couple more vital stops, while the home side continued to waste their chances, Horgan and Murray somehow conspiring to derail a three-on-two which looked set to confirm the win.
Just when they thought they were over the line, Hibs let in a third. Another own goal, this time from Steven Whittaker. The final whistle sounded soon afterwards, suffixed by a sinister wave of booing from the 6000 local fans. As for the 524 who’d made the journey from Greenock, they could barely contain their joy that the fixture had been pushed into extra time.
As the additional period began, both Hibs and Morton looked nervy at the back, with Hibs keeper Chris Maxwell lucky not to concede after spilling a simple shot. Kamberi then grabbed his second, coolly slotting in after 104 minutes. In the aftermath, Morton manager David Hopkin was sent to the stands by the referee, seemingly for dissent. His team almost grabbed an equaliser late on, only denied by Maxwell’s outstretched leg, but by then their defence was exhausted, and did little to stop Christian Doidge bursting through to dink over Rogers and seal the game.
Following the end of extra time, and with a place in the last eight of the League Cup, Hibs could breathe a sigh of relief after a display full of promise but heavy on pratfalls. Man in demand Kamberi dismissed talk of a move away, stating, “I feel comfortable here. I feel happy here”.
Things were not so sunny for Morton, despite their spirited performance, and assistant manager Anton McElhone, speaking in lieu of his boss, accused fourth official Kevin Graham of physically manhandling Hopkin. The club’s chief executive has since claimed that Graham directed abusive language at the Morton coach, and has vowed to lobby the Scottish Football Association about the matter. After a chaotic game, the madness looks set to continue as Graham’s conduct, yet to be exactly determined, is investigated further.
Image: Rob Lownie