But, against a Kilmarnock side that was unwilling to simply throw out the welcome mat for the new manager of the Easter Road club, it became apparent that while Nick Montgomery has fresh ideas and high hopes, he doesn’t have a magic wand and improvements will require patience.
There are of course, quality raw materials to work with – at times that was evident – and depth to the squad. The replacements, forced and unforced, as the game wore on illustrated that, but there are also vulnerabilities that can be exposed. And, in a league as competitive as the Premiership, there will undoubtedly be teams capable of doing that.
The fact that they were in control from the about 20 seconds into the game when Martin Boyle had the opportunity to open the scoring, through to the half-time whistle will make the final score all the more galling but Kilmarnock, guided by a man who many considered a strong candidate to fill the managerial vacancy in Leith, are not a team that will readily settle for defeat if there is time to remedy the situation. Welcoming back Kyle Vaseell and Joe Wright, both men made an impact as they capitalised on the momentum the team managed to build after the interval, refusing to be derailed by Hibs’ second goal, which was celebrated like it had decided the outcome of the match.
Bottom of the table just a couple of games ago, the three points would have elevated the Easter Road side to a position where they would be knocking on the door of top six and, thanks to Lewis Miller’ eighth-minute opener and Dylan Vente’s strike with just over half an hour remaining, they looked on course for that.
Montgomery only started working with his new charges on Monday but with a preferred system of two up top, there were always going to be some adjustments. In his first match in charge the Englishman made two changes to the starting XI selected by interim boss David Gray as Hibs recorded their first win of the season at Pittodrie, prior to the international break. Josh Campbell dropped out to make way for Christian Doidge to partner Vente at the tip of the spear. At the back, Paul Hanlon was left on the bench as Rocky Bushiri was given a run out on the left of the central defence, and Joe Newell, who has been oozing a sense of leadership lately, captained the side.
But there were plenty of players keen to make an impression – even guys like Miller, who has worked with him before, at Central Coast Mariners – while Vente played through the pain after picking up an early knock as he tried to make a strong first impression. Adding a goal didn’t do him any harm.
Getting the right response from the majority of his players (defensively, especially at set pieces, there remains work to do) the new gaffer proved he is willing to give everyone a chance as he attempts to turn things around. He even gave an extremely rare outing to Portuguese winger Jair Tavares, who was sent on as a last-ditch hail mary, having played just 11 minutes since November last year after spiralling out of former gaffer Lee Johnson’s first team plans.
But by that stage, Montgomery was seeking anything that would prick Killie’s growing confidence, having suddenly found an edge to their forward play. The home side had lost keeper Will Dennis to a suspected broken toe, but Hibs suffered their own blow as Doidge took an accidental knee to the head and was replaced by Le Fondre at the start of the second half. “Christian has a double split in his eye,” reported Montgomery. “He’s just gone to head the ball and taken a knee to the eye socket. He was a really good foil for us so it was disappointing to lose him. But Josh Campbell came on and did really well.”
For the first hour, the Leithers had been the ones looking lively in attack. They were dangerous as players in the side tried to impress their new manager and they were aided by the fact that Killie were making too many unforced errors and looking impotent when they made it upfield. Already 2-0 up, Adam Le Fondre had a dig but his goalbound strike was deflected wide. It would have, surely, killed the game off. Instead, Killie took hope from the miss and when Vassell unexpectedly netted for the home side, Hibs simply had to cling on and hope that the final whistle came before there was more damage done. With 11 minutes remaining Wright popped up with a header and while that was frustrating enough for Montgomery, it might have been worse as Killie charged forward with tails up, full of intent.
The first goal from Vassell had turned everything on its head despite his gaffer claiming he is still trying to get back up to speed after time off for the birth of his child. “He missed the game against Ross County,” said McInnes. “It was a blow for us – but brilliant for him! This week he has been terrific in training and we were really looking forward to getting him going again. “Even when he’s not at his sharpest, he still has that talismanic feel for us. It’s no surprise he got the goal that dragged us back into the game.”
Back into it, Hibs then let them level, and the home side continued to push for more. In a game showcased many of Hibs’ attributes, it was a reminder to their new boss that while everyone at the club has been welcoming and are backing him to succeed, there are plenty of tough opponents who are not so magnanimous.