A PROMISING start to the season becomes more impressive with each passing week as Pat Fenlon’s rejuvenated Hibs make it clear they intend to be hanging around the top end of the table for a long time.
No longer can the Easter Road outfit be regarded as something of a surprise package given the two dismal seasons they’d endured prior to this campaign, they are once again a force to be reckoned with although Fenlon would be the first to admit they still remain a long way off where he hopes to take them.
Even so, the statistics are stacking up nicely, this win taking the Capital club to the summit of the SPL table for a second time; Hibs boasting the best home record in the top flight with an unbeaten run which now stretches to six matches; more points already gained at Easter Road than in the whole of last season and with the second round of fixtures barely begun, two-thirds of the way to last season’s points total.
With the club level on points with leaders Celtic and only behind on goal difference, the smiles are back on the faces of the fans who are slowly coming back although perhaps not as quickly as chairman Rod Petrie, who had appealed in the build-up to this match for them to turn out in greater numbers, might like even if the 10,358 who did so on this occasion represented Easter Road’s second biggest gate of the season.
Happy days, indeed, but at the same time many are asking just where Hibs might be without the goals of Leigh Griffiths – described rightly by Saints boss Danny Lennon as their “talisman” – who took his tally for the season to 11, scoring for the fourth game in succession with his third brace against the Paisley outfit. No wonder the hitman’s team-mates and supporters alike are desperate to see the on-loan Wolves star extend his stay beyond January as does manager Fenlon who has revealed talks are already underway not only to keep Griffiths but Jorge Claros and Ryan McGivern currently pulling on green and white shirts on similar deals.
It’s fast becoming something of a conundrum for Hibs. Everyone, of course, is delighted to see Griffiths maintain his prolific strikerate but every goal is certain to alert others, possibly with deeper pockets than the Edinburgh outfit, particularly with Molineux boss Stale Solbakken having stated again he’ll happily allow the former Livingston and Dundee star to leave.
As such matters are out of Hibs’ hands to a certain extent, although in their favour is the fact Griffiths is a lifelong supporter of the club and is clearly enjoying his football as he lives the dream.
And Fenlon has made it clear Hibs will do everything in their power to retain not only Griffiths but Claros and McGivern, the manager going as far as to state he’d forsake any January signings if he can tie up those three for a little bit longer at least. Skipper James McPake underlined the importance of keeping Griffiths, saying: “It’s a no-brainer to get this deal done if the club can.
“They have to do something. He loves playing for this club. Is there anyone else in Scotland he’d rather play for, I’m not sure.”
The big defender, though, admitted it wasn’t as clear-cut as some might imagine. He added: “If someone else in England wanted to take a gamble on him that would be up to Leigh. Hibs is where his heart is, but if he keeps scoring goals it will be hard for the club to keep him.
“Leigh is someone we want to keep and he wants to stay, so we have to make sure we do our work and get it done.”
McPake isn’t the only Hibs player bending Griffiths’ ear, however, with his fellow striker Eoin Doyle weighing in with his plea for the 22-year-old to stay. He said: “Definitely we want to keep him. If we were to lose him, it would be a big loss.
“I’m sure there are a few looking at him now and it will be a battle to hold on to him. It surprises me Wolves may let him go but we want to hold on to him because he’s a massive player for us, top scorer in the league. There hasn’t been any chat from him about it, but it’s only November.”
But while everyone at Easter Road is desperate to see Griffiths stay on a permanent basis, Saints midfielder Kenny McLean admitted he’d love to see the back of the striker after he claimed his third double against the Paisley outfit, his goals again proving to be the difference between the two sides.
McLean, who opened the scoring for the Buddies with a superb 25-yard drive, sighed: “He always seems to do it against us, we can’t put our finger on what we can do to stop him. He’s a quality player and if you give him the space we did he is always going to put them away.”
Griffiths had already hit the post before McLean struck, but Saints were only ahead for five minutes before Griffiths collected a Paul Cairney cross which had been flicked on by the head of Doyle to bury a shot below goalkeeper Craig Samson, then doubling his tally and firing Hibs into the lead 25 minutes from time as he drilled a low shot into the corner of the net.
Saints lost midfield enforcer Jim Goodwin 60 seconds later, the Buddies captain spotted thrusting a hand into the face of Hibs’ David Wotherspoon in an off-the-ball incident by assistant referee David Watt, the Irishman having been booked earlier for a wild challenge on McGivern.
Lee Mair might have followed him up the tunnel for a blatant block on Wotherspoon only two minutes after being shown the yellow card for a trip on Griffiths, the striker thumping a shot off the post for a second time from the resulting free-kick.
And, incredibly, Griffiths was denied a hat-trick for the third time as latched onto McGivern’s slide-rule pass to fire a low shot beyond Samson and into the far corner of the net only to be adjudged marginally offside, leaving Samson to praise his opponent.
He said: “I think everybody saw what the difference in the game was, it was one player. Griffiths was brilliant, his two finishes were great and he’s hit the post twice as well.
“He hits the ball early and generally hits it across you. You kind of know he’s going to do that but it’s hard to get to it because he hits it with a lot of pace.
“But it’s not just the way he strikes the ball, I though his overall performance was top-notch.”
Hibs, though, had their own goalkeeper to thank for ensuring they finished with all three points, Ben Williams, who had pulled off a few important stops, topping them all as he threw himself full length to push away Steven Thompson’s shot two minutes into the three added on by referee Alan Muir, highlighting once again the new-found resilience which underpins Fenlon’s team.