When one side can’t buy a win at home and the other struggles to do so “on the road,” then it should come as no great surprise that a match between them should end in stalemate.
Nor would it have been much of a shock to Hibs fans to see their side, the Scottish Premiership’s lowest scoring team with just ten goals from 17 matches, fail to find the back of the opposition’s net once again, this the seventh time in their last nine games they have failed to do so.
Terry Butcher has seen his players score just twice in five outings but it’s been a weakness which long pre-dated the new manager’s arrival, only four goals claimed in 12 matches since five were rattled past League One Stranraer in a run now stretching back some three months, with Butcher revealing his players are suffering from a “fear of winning” at home.
As such, until that shortcoming is resolved, it seems the best the Capital outfit can hope for is to rely on a defence which has become much more Scrooge-like under the direction of Butcher and his assistant Maurice Malpas, with only two goals conceded in their five games in charge to secure no-scoring draws. However, frustration will be the name of the game until the strikers rediscover their touch.
Hibs dominated against a St Johnstone side forced to play with ten men for almost an hour after ex-Easter Road midfielder Paddy Cregg lasted barely 30 seconds after replacing the injured Murray Davidson before being shown a straight red card by referee Alan Muir for a two-footed lunge on Paul Cairney, incredibly the second Saints substitute to be sent off within a minute following Rory Fallon’s dismissal against Aberdeen.
While Perth boss Tommy Wright branded Fallon’s indiscrection as “silly”, he felt Cregg was “unlucky,” claiming it was the sort of challenge which wouldn’t even have attracted a yellow card ten years ago before conceding: “He was slightly over the ball and I thought it was a red at the time. ‘Padge’ was there to win the ball, to win tackles and he was a split-second late.”
Cregg’s departure left Saints to dig in for the remainder of the match, reliant on the counter-attack to trouble their hosts and they almost did so four minutes before the interval, ex Hibee David Wotherspoon returning to Easter Road for the first time and firing in a cross which broke off Michael Nelson and prompted a terrific reaction save from Ben Williams, the goalkeeper then keeping out Stevie May’s effort from the rebound.
That, however, was as close as Saints came to scoring as they found themselves pinned back but able to defy Hibs who didn’t do enough to help themselves in terms of stretching their opponents or testing goalkeeper Alan Mannus. The Northern Ireland internationalist did, though, match William’s earlier stop as he prevented Tam Scobbie’s deflection from Scott Robertson’s cross flashing past him and then, in the dying seconds, threw himself to his right to claw away James Collins’ header.
Referee Muir, taunted by both sets of fans with chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing,” as he angered them in turn with some of his decisions, faced a torrent of abuse from the home support as he left the pitch surrounded by Hibs players convinced he’d denied them a certain penalty when Collins appeared to have his legs taken from him by Brian Easton.
Although Butcher afterwards remained to be convinced of the validity of that claim, Collins was in no doubt, insisting Easton had later told him it was a “stonewaller” although the Saints substitute was adamant when asked that the striker had caught him rather than the other way about while admitting his heart had been in his mouth for a split-second.
However, Collins insisted Hibs had been robbed of a victory which would have taken them closer to the top six and earned them only their second league win of the season on home turf – and their third in this entire calendar year.
He said: “It was a definite penalty. If the referee hasn’t seen it then the linesman [Mark McLean] should. If you get a penalty in the last minute, as we should have had, then we would have gone on and won the game.
“We do feel hard done by. The St Johnstone player has caught me on the calf and he said to me after the game it was a stonewall penalty. He knows it and the linesman should see it.”
Collins, however, insisted that he and his team-mates must take responsibility for what happens throughout the 90 minutes. He said: “When they went down to ten men you automatically think it’s going to be a walk in the park. But they defended well.
“The ball wasn’t dropping for us and decisions from officials went against us. Maybe the manager is right, that there is a fear of winning. We are waiting for something to happen rather than make it happen. We need to look at ourselves, although sometimes it can be harder against ten men.”
And while as a top-class defender himself Butcher appreciated the way Saints had dug in to salvage a point, he’s well aware of why his side is currently falling short of expectations, experiencing first hand the frustration of those supporters sitting around his vantage point in the directors’ box as he served his SFA imposed touchline ban.
Describing it as a somewhat “surreal” experience, Butcher said: “It’s very frustrating. All you want to do is give them what they want and that is goals and wins. The boys worked hard and got into some good positions, it’s just the confidence of putting the ball into the box, the confidence of taking the ball in the box and having shots. You can see it’s not there.
“Having not scored many goals at Easter Road this year, having not had many wins at Easter Road this year, you can sense there’s a sort of fear of winning. We worked hard enough, we dominated the game but just couldn’t put it into the net. It’s not for the lack of trying, just a bit of quality around the box. To Saints credit they defended heroically, they really did.
“If we did get through them then Mannus was flinging himself right, left and centre but we did not test him enough, there’s no doubt about that.”