You fear for Hibs, you really do. Fifteen matches left to save their season with a growing number of even their own supporters questioning whether the Easter Road outfit can survive in the SPL.
Once again a glimmer of hope, those back-to-back victories in Fife which preceded this game, has been dashed, Pat Fenlon’s side once more only a single point ahead of basement outfit Dunfermline, the Pars at least having the comfort of a match in hand, tomorrow night’s clash with a Motherwell team which have had problems of their own of late. Only a few short days ago, the Hibs boss was talking of reeling in the sides immediately above his own, reckoning that “three or four” others could find themselves engaged in a fight to avoid the drop.
Today, however, it is looking more and more as if that particular battle will have only two protagonists, Hibs and Dunfermline, the gap between them and Inverness Caley having now stretched to seven points.
Not insurmountable by any means as Billy Brown argued, the Hibs assistant manager insisting there was so little between most of the sides in the top flight that a couple of wins – or defeats – can transform the complexion of the table.
Asked if he felt it was now a straight-forward fight between his side and the Pars, Brown replied: “I don’t see that. In this league there’s so little between the teams that if you get two victories on the trot it makes such a difference.
“Two defeats on the trot can bring people down so I don’t see it as that at the moment. We just have to make sure it is not that.”
And that’s the crux of the matter for Hibs. The problem is all too evident, the difficulty is in finding a remedy, and quickly.
Just where does a side which has managed just four victories in 23 matches, conjure up the sort of winning streak which is going to lift them clear of trouble and allow their supporters to breathe a bit more easily?
Not at Easter Road it would seem, Hibs having won just one league match, against St Johnstone, on their home turf in almost a year. And certainly not, as Brown readily conceded, with the “abysmal” defending which has become all too common over the past couple of seasons and which was all too evident again on this occasion.
Ignoring the three scored in the William Hill Scottish Cup win over Second Divison Cowdenbeath, the trio of SPL games since the turn of the year have seen Hibs net six times and yet concede eight, contributing to the dismal statistic of 41 lost so far. And, at this rate, last season’s miserable record of 61 goals lost in 38 games could well be shattered unless those defensive leaks are plugged.
Unfortunately, it is an all too familiar scenario for the Hibs fans, former boss John Hughes revealing he’d always considered his old club to be a “soft touch” when he returned with Falkirk, Colin Calderwood’s ill-fated reign continuing in similar vein with neither, despite being formidable defenders in their own right, able to address such a glaring problem.
Now, three weeks into the current transfer window, Fenlon has just eight days in which to do so although the common consensus is that it is very difficult at this time of year to get the players you want. Somehow, though, Fenlon must do so, the Irishman having admitted he needs experience to help guide his young squad but, as yet, having managed to bring in just Eion Doyle, a prolific striker for Sligo Rovers but untested in this country, and 20-year-old Norwich City defender George Francomb.
Until he does so, however, Hibs will have to get on with it, Saturday’s back four consisting of three Under-21 internationalists in David Stephens, Paul Hanlon and Callum Booth all of whom had an uncomfortable afternoon against the experience, strength and power of Saints front two Fran Sandaza and Marcus Haber.
But even given the youth of much of the home side, it was powder-puff defending which proved to be the Edinburgh club’s downfall. Twice they hauled themselves level, Leigh Griffiths’ penalty cancelling out Lee Croft’s opener and then Booth doing likewise after Liam Craig had fired Saints ahead again only for Sandaza to clinch the points with a clinical finish.
The rage within Brown as he conducted the post-match press conference, Fenlon having rushed off on an unrevealed mission, was palpable.
Looking very much as if he was struggling to keep his emotions in check, the Hibs No. 2 rightly bemoaned the standard of defending for Saints’ second and third goals.
He said: “That’s the story of the season isn’t it?” A rhetorical question to which anyone who has seen Hibs on a regular basis not just this season but last knows full well the answer.
Brown continued: “We are where we are because of the goals against column. We won our last two games but in doing so we conceded two to Cowdenbeath and two to Dunfermline.
“To get in the position we did, to get back to 1-1 and then lose a goal which was bad as you will see at this level, then get back to 2-2 and lose another was really, really hard to take. It was absolutely abysmal defending.”
Brown revealed Hibs have been “working towards” getting an experienced defender – although 28-year-old Sean O’Hanlon was left on the bench following his one-match suspension – between now and next Tuesday but conceded until that happens: “We just have to work our way through it.
“That’s what we have got so we just have to try to work our way round it.
“Obviously, we know the problem, we have been working towards curing it and hopefully we can get it sorted. But it is not easy to get players at this time of year.”
Fenlon is already on record as saying Hibs’ current plight doesn’t help that process but is also well aware of the deficiencies which exist within his squad although Brown cautioned against all hope being pinned on any new arrivals, insisting those currently donning a green-and-white jersey must bear the greater responsibility for pulling the club out of trouble.
He said: “One player sometimes doesn’t make a difference, everyone has to pull together. Defensively we are poor, no doubt about it but you also have to credit St Johnstone. They are an experienced team, they don’t have two many young boys. They have good players and their front two, Sandaza and Haber, caused us a lot of trouble.”