Remember the good times you’ve had was the message from Terry Butcher to his players as they boarded their team coach early on Boxing Day morning, recalling Hibs’ Scottish Cup triumph against Ross County only a few weeks ago.
There was plenty for them to recall, a first ever win against the Staggies, Butcher’s first victory as Hibs boss and, for the big Englishman himself, a first triumph in Dingwall.
But it looked as if the wheels had come off – at least figuratively speaking – before they’d even made it halfway up the A9 as their bus broke down on the outskirts of Perth, leaving them stranded and their decision to travel on the day of the match backfiring.
However, as they waited some 75 minutes for a replacement the players feasted on bacon butties and sausage rolls, an unorthodox pre-match meal but one which Butcher might contemplate introducing on a regular basis. Carbon copy goals from Michael Nelson and Jordon Forster, the defenders powering home headers from pinpoint Paul Cairney corners in either half to claim their first goals in a green and white shirt steered Hibs to their first Scottish Premiership match since he took over.
Butcher said: “The coach broke down at the Broxden Services so while we waited for a replacement we knocked on the door of The Harvester there and asked if we could get some food to try to give the players some sort of pre-match meal. There was one guy there cashing up from Christmas night and all he had was bacon butties, sausage rolls, tea, coffee and juice. The players said ‘fine’ and that’s what they had.”
An unwanted disruption to their preparations such an obstacle may have been but, as Butcher pointed out, it paled into insignificance in light of the sudden death of David Paul which had cast a dark, dark shadow over Easter Road in the days leading up to this match.
Both sides wore black armbands and a minute’s silence was impeccably observed not only for Paul, but 13-year-old Tynecastle player Jamie Skinner who collapsed and died while playing the same day.
If the opening phases were scrappy, Hibs’ intent was clear, to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, to press Ross County in the final third of the pitch and to get as many balls into their opponents’ penalty area as possible.
A simple tactic, but one which had the Staggies, without a win in eight matches, including that Scottish Cup defeat by Hibs, on their heels with only a superb interception from Brian McLean preventing James Collins reaching Jason Cummings’ low cross.
Criticism, much of it justified, had been made of the quality of Hibs’ delivery into the area, not least by Butcher himself, but there was much more purpose – and care – on this occasion with McLean and his fellow centre half Scott Boyd called upon time and again to repel their visitors.
With Hibs being the Premiership’s lowest scorers, the 250 or so Hibs fans who had made the Boxing Day trip up the A9 were probably looking to Collins or Cummings to provide their Festive cheer, but it was Nelson, imperious at the back alongside Paul Hanlon, who grabbed the first goal, rising to meet Cairney’s corner and power a header in off the underside of the bar. The tough-as-nails stopper, however, required a spell of treatment as he rose to his feet clutching his left arm – although it was unclear whether the damage was inflicted lwhen he hit the turf or by the avalanche of team-mates who landed on him in celebration. Whatever the cause, the injury clearly bothered Nelson, who took advantage of a break in play some minutes later to grab a couple of painkillers from the team doctor.
Hanlon almost doubled Hibs’ lead in similar fashion, getting on the end of Liam Craig’s corner only to see his powerful downward header held by County goalkeeper Michael Fraser, who was glad to see Cairney waste an opportunity from an inviting free-kick, the midfielder firing high and wide.
Graham Carey had produced the only moment of concern for the Capital club in the opening 45 minutes, a superb free-kick from 30 yards which found the side netting, and there was little doubt Butcher’s side were worth more than a single goal lead. They got their reward ten minutes after the interval with a copy-cat goal, Cairney again the provider with a corner from the left, met this time by Jordon Forster whose powerful header was destined for only one place – the roof of the net.
That allowed Hibs to breath a little bit easier, Carey having gone closest for the Staggies, driving in a rising shot from an angle which found the outside of Ben Williams’ left hand post.
For all Hibs’ trouble in finding the back of their opponents’ net over the past weeks, they’d conceded only two in their last five matches and their determination to add to that increasingly impressive statistic was highlighted by the sight of Ryan McGivern, as strong defensively as he was in getting himself forward as an auxiliary winger, throwing himself in front of substitute Gary Glen’s shot after the ball had broken to him.
Given such resilience, Butcher probably felt his players deserved the break they did get 17 minutes from time when Williams found himself beaten by Carey’s wonderfully struck free-kick from 35 yards only for the ball to crack off the top of the bar. It was, nevertheless a warning that all it would take was one goal for County to feel they were back in a match in which, for long spells, they had been decidedly second best.
The Staggies, however, were unable to even claim that foothold, leaving Hibs to win by more than two goals for the first time in 13 matches – a run stretching back to the 5-3 League Cup win over Stranraer.
Hibs are obviously far from that silky smooth football team Butcher wants to see but if they aren’t entirely pleasing on the eye they are, as the manager has pointed out several times, more resolute and more resilient –as evidenced by results, just one defeat, to champions Celtic since the big Englishman and Maurice Malpas took over.
Afterwards Butcher dedicated the victory to Paul and his family, saying: “We wanted to win for David, that was the big thing. The players wanted the minute’s silence but we just wanted to do it for David and his family because that’s what he would have wanted, Hibs to win. I said to the boys they are the lucky ones, they have a career, so it’s nice that we could do it for him, in his honour.”