TO be fair to Dundee they have made it more of a tussle than anyone had envisaged but if they have shown their battling qualities in taking the relegation battle into the final three games of the campaign, their rivals, St Mirren, proved they were not completely lacking in that domain either.
Scorers: Hibernian - Griffiths 31, 86; Caldwell 67; St Mirren - Goncalves 60, McAusland 78, 82
A goal down after a 45 minutes in which they didn’t really get going, they came back out for the second half and fought back to take a 3-2 lead. At that stage, the news from Den Park suggested that even a draw might be enough to ensure their SPL survival but in a brutal few moments, Leigh Griffiths equalised in Leith while John Brown’s men scored the winner in Dundee.
Neil Lennon may be scratching his head, perplexed by the fact none of his squad are in the running for the PFA Scotland Players’ Player of the Year award, but given the way that Griffiths has tortured opponents and turned games this term his name was always going to be to the forefront of the minds of the players who cast the votes, especially those from Paisley. His double yesterday means he has now scored seven times against Danny Lennon’s side.
Unhappy with the defending at the first goal in particular, the St Mirren manager conceded that the SPL’s second highest scorer was still a special talent. “I’m more upset with the way we lost the first goal – he comes back inside two players. But take nothing away from him, he’s a very good player and I’ll be very surprised if he is not the worthy winner of the player of the year.”
That first goal, in the 30th minute, was vintage Griffiths, as he proved he is better than most at this level and emphasised yet again how tough it is going to be for Hibs to replace him next term. Because while he produced the goods at one end of the pitch – moving him to 27 goals in all competitions this season and leaving him just three goals shy of becoming the first Hibs player in 40 years to rack up 30 goals in a season – at the other end the defence was shambling. St Mirren were not complaining but if a side struggling for league survival were able to capitalise so easily, the growing fear for the Hibs punters is how they will fare when up against league winners Celtic in the Scottish Cup final.
Hibs manager Pat Fenlon described the match as a “nightmare” but tried desperately to cling to the positives of Griffiths and the performances of young lads like Alex Harris, Danny Handling and substitute Ross Caldwell – the latter pair combining to score the second goal. Tom Taiwo picked out Handling in the 67th minute and his cross to Caldwell, in a central position at the edge of the box, allowed the youngster to blast a low shot beyond Craig Samson.
But all the positives cannot mask the ineptitude of some of Hibs’ defending. While they were rarely tested in the first half, after the interval they were rattled as St Mirren upped the tempo, pressed them and gave them little peace. Time and again they struggled to clear their own box. That was the big issue for the Paisley side’s first goal in the 60th minute. Gary Teale burst forward and while Esmael Goncalves failed to convert at the first attempt and Steven Thompson’s shot was blocked for the second, Hibs were unable to clear the danger before Goncalves finally squeezed the ball inside the near post.
Having gone behind again to Caldwell’s strike, St Mirren came back at Hibs and again the home side played a big part. So too did Teale. Again the supplier, he found Thompson, whose touch then found McAusland whose close-range effort edged over the line.
That was in the 77th minute and the defender added a second in the 82nd minute, again proving more determined than the Hibs defence and getting the ball over the line from close quarters. He and his team-mates and the travelling fans celebrated like their eighth successive SPL season had been secured but fate and a fellow called Griffiths were yet to intervene.
David Wotherspoon proved another influential sub, playing the ball in to Taiwo, who found Griffiths at the back post. But as St Mirren appealed for offside their nemesis made no error in finding the net.
It helped paper over some pretty sizeable gaps at Hibs, who have now won just two games from 18 in the league, their early season table-topping form long forgotten.