If, and it’s becoming an increasingly bigger if with every passing match, Hibs do manage to avoid being dragged into that play-off scrap then it will be thanks to the failings of others rather than anything they do for themselves.
Only four matches remain of what has turned into a truly wretched season. The fact that 11th-place finish which would leave the Easter Road outfit battling for their Scottish Premiership future, and the full extent of the trouble they are in, doesn’t yet seem to have registered with some of Terry Butcher’s players.
Today they cling by their finger nails to seventh place but after a fifth successive defeat compounding a woeful run which has seen them win just one of their last 14 league matches, only three points separate Hibs from the nerve-shredding prospect of going head-to-head with a Championship side in a bid to preserve their place in the top flight.
And on the evidence of yet another miserable performance there would be few among the 1526 Hibs fans who made the journey to Paisley who’d bet on their team coming out on top in a double-header, Butcher himself admitting the display against St Mirren lacked the “heart and desire” he and that travelling support had demanded.
If some of his players seem unaware of the danger they are in – many of them fighting for a new contract if not at Easter Road then at least attempting to impress potential suitors – Butcher is in no doubt. Is the play-off spot becoming a concern? “Let’s not beat about the bush,” he replied, “We are in it.
“We are in a situation where we have lost five games in a row, we have scored one goal in these five games and we do not look as if we are going to score many goals. I am going to have to find a way to score goals, find a way to get a team performance and find a way to get a team out there that is going to fight and scratch for Hibernian Football Club because at this moment in time they are not doing that, there’s not enough fight, not enough effort and attitude.”
The perplexing problem for Butcher is that following each setback he’s reported a positive reaction from his players, a belief that they’ll respond to the challenge in the next match only to have that optimism shattered once again.
Butcher has, as he acknowledged, become something of a scratched record, the same observations being repeated on a weekly basis, the manager forced into a raft of changes for each game as he desperately seeks what has proved to be an elusive winning formula. That bid has not been helped by the season ending injuries to Paul Hanlon and Paul Heffernan while suspensions, Ryan McGivern sitting this one out with Danny Haynes and Alan Maybury having also been sidelined in recent weeks, have also prevented that consistency of selection which so often underpins success.
Thirteen seconds was all it took for the hard work on the training ground to count for nothing, veteran defender Michael Nelson caught on the wrong side as Saints striker Stephen Thompson rose to nod John McGinn’s high ball down into the path of Kenny McLean – the midfielder’s run having gone unmatched – to rifle a low shot beyond the helpless Ben Williams. Even then you feared the match was beyond the Premiership’s lowest scoring team, Duncan Watmore the only player to have found the back of the opposition net in Hibs’ last six matches, half-a-dozen games in which they’ve hardly even troubled the opposition goalkeeper. And that early concern was confirmed when the Buddies doubled their lead with just 14 minutes on the clock.
Losing the sloppy goals which have blighted the past three or four seasons was a trait which Butcher appeared to have eradicated on his arrival in Edinburgh. But it is a frailty which has returned with a vengeance, Hibs – the no-scoring draw with their manager’s old club Inverness Caley apart – having lost at least two goals in seven of their last eight matches.
Once more they were the authors of their own undoing, Jordon Forster having his pocket picked by McLean as he sought to bring the ball out from the back rather than following the “safety first” rule of defending, to get the ball as far away from your penalty area as possible. It allowed the Saints midfielder to slip a pass through for Paul McGowan to put the Buddies level on points with their visitors.
Even the red card shown to Saints skipper Jim Goodwin, his late lunge at Kevin Thomson judged to be serious foul play by referee Kevin Clancy, which left his team-mates short-handed for more than an hour was of little use to Hibs so ineffectual were they in attack. The Buddies’ defence was more than capable of dealing with anything thrown at them while their goalkeeper Christopher Dilo, despite displaying an uncertainty on more than one occasion, was never fully tested.
The home fans judged Thomson to be the villain of the piece, jeering his every touch of the ball as they obviously felt he’d made the most of Goodwin’s reputation by conning Clancy, but the Hibs midfielder was having none of it. He said: “I thought it was a pretty poor tackle to be honest.
“I got their first and you could probably have heard it back in Edinburgh as he clattered my shin pad. He caught me right at the edge of it. I thought it was quite nasty.”
Thomson was, naturally, more concerned about his side’s predicament than Goodwin’s dismissal, the midfielder admitting: “When you are in the position we are in you cannot give any team a two goal start. Do that and it’s going to be an uphill battle. We are disappointed at where we are, it’s a dog-fight and we have to stand up and be counted. I am confident we will be okay but if we put on performances like that then we are going to be in bother, aren’t we?”
Thomson has found himself on the sidelines more often than not since Butcher arrived – partially due to injury – but the Scotland internationalist expressed the hope that he can, at least, hold down his place and do his bit over the coming games. Asked if the wholesale changes Butcher has made on almost a weekly basis haven’t helped, Thomson said: “It’s hard for the manager if performances are poor and people do not warrant staying in the team, that’s part and parcel of football.
“The best teams in the world make changes but we need to get a bit of continuity, we need to stick together. It’s up to the manager to try to pin-point what’s going wrong and to try to get us playing but unfortunately I think a few of the boys have let him down. It’s time for big characters, to stick the chests out and try to get the three points against Hearts this weekend.
“If you can’t get motivated for a derby then you shouldn’t be playing for Hibs. As far as I am concerned I’m one that’s desperate to play and fingers crossed I can have a run in the team rather than one game, miss a few, then one game.”