The ball was fired into the box by Andy Rodgers. It looped into the air and Mark Roberts controlled it with his left foot. Shifted on to his right, then his left. His right again. And then again on to his left before sending a curling shot along the ground past Graeme Smith. Typical Marko. 417 days later Hibs return to Somerset Park desperately looking to avoid a repeat. This time they'll meet a stronger Ayr United side, a Division higher and on a rich vein of form having won three games in fourteen days to lift themselves of the foot of the First Division. But what can we expect from a new look Hibs side and are they set to go the same way as Inverness, city-rivals Hearts and St. Mirren this season?
Pat Fenlon has undertaken a radical overhaul of the Hibs squad since replacing Colin Calderwood at the end of November, recruiting no fewer than eight new players. Indeed, the Hibs side that lines-up at Somerset Park tomorrow will bare no resemblance to the one that crashed out of the competition to the Honest Men last season, with all but two of the starting line-up that night having departed Easter Road.
Fenlon’s new recruits represent a mixed bag of future prospects, former prospects and unknown foreign quantities. A leaky defence has been replenished with 20-year old full backs Matt Doherty and George Francomb on loan from Wolves and Norwich respectively and James McPake, borrowed from Coventry City until the end of the season. Given the captain’s armband in the continued absence of Ian Murray, McPake started his career at Livingston alongside the likes of Robert Snodgrass and Graeme Dorrans but the 27 year old has failed to make the same impact south of the border as his Almondvale alumni, making 39 appearances in two-and-a-half season for the Midlands club. Also added to the equation is the ‘Gambian Roberto Carlos’, Pa Saikou Kujabi.
The Hibs defence, however, remains suspect, looking non-too clever in conceding four against Motherwell and five against Celtic in recent weeks. Goalkeeper Graham Stack came in for particular criticism for his display against a Celtic side admittedly at the top of their game.
In midfield, Hibs have added Honduran internationalist Jorge Claros, who was shot in the head last year during an attempted carjacking. Nicknamed ‘The Pitbull’, Claros and the formidable presence of Isaiah Osbourne will most likely carry out the graft for the Hibees in the middle of the park, although Claros is much more than a destroyer and can pick out a pass and is comfortable on the ball. Fenlon’s more attacking options in midfield include home-grown talents David Wotherspoon and Louis Stevenson and another player on-loan from the English Premiership, Tom Soares. Opening his Hibs account with two goals versus Kilmarnock at Rugby Park a fortnight ago, Soares was a promising youngster coming through the ranks with Crystal Palace and earned four England U21 caps. In 2008 he moved to newly-promoted Stoke City in a £1.25 million deal but has made only seven Premier League appearances. Ominously for Hibs, loan spells at Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday have ended with both sides being relegated.
Hibs under Colin Calderwood were heavily reliant on Garry O’Connor for goals, with the former Scotland interationalist netting seven of the Leith side’s first 11 league goals. Since October however, the goals have dried up for O’Connor as a persistent ankle injury has taken its toll. Leigh Griffiths – when not gesticulating at his own supporters – has weighed in with seven but Hibs haven’t been prolific, scoring 15 goals in 14 league games under Fenlon and have failed to find the net in five of their last seven games.
If O’Connor is not deemed fit enough to start on Saturday, yet another on-loan player Roy O’Donovan is likely to get the nod. Signed by Roy Keane in 2007 from Cork City – where he had an impressive strike-rate of 31 goals in 76 games – he spent much of his Sunderland career out on loan, including at Dundee United in 2008 before signing for Coventry in June 2010. A more recent recruit to from the League or Ireland Eion Doyle is also an option, and has already netted two Scottish Cup goals this season against Cowdenbeath and the winner against Kilmarnock in the last round.
Building virtually a new team in a matter of months was never going to be easy but any improvement in Hibs’ fortunes under Fenlon hasn’t manifest itself in results. While Colin Calderwood blundered his way to 14 points from 15 games at the start of the season, Fenlon has added just nine from his 14 games. Hibs now sit in 11th in the SPL, two points ahead of Dunfermline – that’s no bigger an advantage than when Fenlon took over Hibs, then placed 9th. Additional victories have come in the Scottish Cup: at Cowdenbeath – where they conceded after just 30 seconds but went on to win 3-2 – and 1-0 at home to Kilmarnock but Fenlon shouldn’t take too much heart from a job professionally done at Central Park as he faces another ‘tricky tie’.
Brian Reid’s approach to the game will be intriguing. Will he stick with the same side and formation that has served him so well over the past thirteen days? Or will he revert to the tried and tested 451 approach that has seen Ayr knock out three SPL sides this season and run a fourth very close? It seems likely that it will be same again for United for two key reasons. Firstly: Reid's midfield options are limited. Alan Trouten is struggling with both hamstrings and is unlikely to be fit, Jamie McKernon and Ross Robertson are no-more than bit part players and lack the experience or quality you feel to come into a game like this. Secondly: it would mean breaking up the Parker-Roberts partnership upfront. Parker could do a job upfront on his own and is a willing runner now up to full speed but his pairing with Roberts looks to be mutually beneficial, making the most of the class both players posses.
So, Ayr’s approach to the game is likely to be far more positive than in recent encounters with SPL sides, through necessity and form. It will be important that the front two, along with Moffat and McGowan wide press the Hibernian defence and full backs. Tomsett and Geggan – at the centre of United’s marked improvement in recent weeks in every respect – will have to be at their best, harrying, hustling and denying Hibs easy time on the ball. This area could be a concern for United, not in terms of the performance we can expect from Tomsett and Geggan but that Hibs lack real width (unless Ivan Sproule is given an unexpected start) and therefore could have a numerical advantage in the middle of the park. That lack of width is perhaps a good thing with Ayr's young full backs Jonathan Tiffoney and Adam Dodd potentially the weak links in an already makeshift back four.
Judging by the media coverage in the run up to the game emanating from Easter Road, Hibs seem to be pinning a lot of hopes on just not being that side defeated 14 months ago and that they came through that Cowdenbeath game. But Somerset Park will be a different proposition and its not often a Second Division side knocks out one from the SPL (last year excepted, of course). Ayr fans have first hand experience that hastily assembled teams of loan players do not always work and to date there has been no evidence that Pat Fenlon's Hibs are any better than Colin Calderwood's Hibs. If they are that bad there is every chance Ayr United could be looking at another semi-final in what is fast becoming a very memorable season.