Paul Cairney believes Hibs can corner themselves a place in the top six of the Scottish Premiership table thanks to the danger Terry Butcher’s side pose at set pieces.
Although the Easter Road outfit have found goals rather hard to come by this season – averaging just one per game in the 28 matches played so far – opposition sides have become very wary whenever the Capital club win a corner or are awarded a free-kick anywhere near the penalty area.
Their ability to exploit such situations was again underlined as they battled back from the loss of two early goals against Motherwell thanks to two perfectly delivered crosses from the little midfielder, the first finding the head of Jordon Forster after his initial corner had been worked back to him and the second, from one of eight corners Hibs won during the match, powered home in off the underside of Motherwell goalkeeper Lee Hollis’ crossbar by Michael Nelson.
It was the same combination – but in reverse order – which clinched the points as Hibs defeated Ross County in Dingwall on Boxing Day, both crosses again supplied by Cairney, just two more examples of how Butcher’s players make the most of such opportunities.
Cairney went on to make it a hat-trick of “assists” as he played in Paul Heffernan for the striker to fire Hibs ahead against Motherwell, the substitute’s first goal since opening the scoring against Celtic in mid-October and one which appeared to have secured what had looked like the most unlikely of wins with John Sutton and Lionel Ainsworth having struck for the Fir Park side within the opening half-an-hour.
Unfortunately for Hibs they were unable to hold on for a victory which would have hauled them level with sixth-placed St Johnstone, Sutton pouncing again in time added-on as he threw himself at a loose ball inside the six-yard box to head home his second goal of the game.
Given Hibs had looked beaten a point would, normally, have been gratefully accepted but having come so close to snatching all three points with that storming comeback Cairney admitted there was no hiding the sense of frustration felt within the home dressing-room.
The 26-year-old former Queens Park and Partick Thistle player said: “Even after we went 3-2 ahead we had chances, I had one and so did James Collins so it was really disappointing to concede that goal right at the death. The gaffer came in and had a go at us for that, and rightly so.
“The three points would have hauled us level with St Johnstone and put a bit more pressure on them but although we’ve closed the gap slightly they are still two ahead and now with a game in hand.
“But we have to keep fighting and hopefully we can still clinch a place in the top six, it still remains our aim and we’re not going to stop battling.”
And that is where Cairney believes the danger Hibs pose from dead ball situations can prove to be a major weapon in their armoury. He said: “Obviously it’s something we work away at on the training ground and the practice we put in has, thankfully, seen us come up with a few goals from corners and free-kicks.
“We’d started well against Motherwell only to find ourselves two goals behind. It was a terrible situation to be in and it was important we got a goal back before half-time. Big Jordon getting on the end of my first one gave us a lifeline, it lifted the players and fans alike.
“Then I managed to pick out Michael and I don’t think there was any doubt his header had crossed the line before it was cleared. I think we all thought we’d won when Paul took his goal so well but sadly it wasn’t to be.”
On a personal level Cairney was more than happy with his own contribution before he tired and was replaced by Danny Handling for the final six minutes of the match, his appearance against Motherwell being his first start since the middle of January in what has been a stop-sart season for him.
Ruled out by an ankle injury sustained before the second leg of the Europa League clash with Malmo, Cairney’s first appearance coincided with Butcher’s arrival towards the end of November only for the winger to be sent off after picking up two yellow cards in the Scottish Cup win at Ross County.
In recent weeks a virus contributed to his absence but now he’s determined to play his part in what will hopefully prove to be a successful drive towards a top-six place for the first time in four seasons. Cairney said: “I’ve been champing at the bit to get back into the team. I’d been out for a wee while but to get the chance and play a part in all three goals was pleasing although I’d have loved to have got one for myself. But hopefully I’ve given the gaffer a bit of a headache ahead of tomorrow’s match against Inverness Caley.”
Butcher admitted both Cairney and Heffernan had done that while his options as he prepares to return to his old club for the first time will be further increased by the availability of Tom Taiwo who was suspended for the visit of Motherwell.
The Hibs boss said: “There were some good individual performances against Motherwell, particularly in the second half. Paul [Cairney] came up trumps with three assists. He’s a great little character, he brings the dressing-room to life and he certainly brought Easter Road to life.
“Paul [Hefferan] getting a goal was great. He’s played for the Under-20s and looked sharp so perhaps he will get his chance as well.”