Ever since arriving at Easter Road Alan Stubbs has stood shoulder to shoulder with his players, fiercely protective of them and quick to voice his complete and utter faith in them whatever setback may have befallen his side.
But now, it appears, his patience has been tested a little too far, the head coach revealing he’s ready to swing the axe. Hopes of taking Rangers to the wire in the chase for the Championship title and the one automatic promotion place that carries vanished in the space of six days with defeats by Morton, Dumbarton and Queen of the South.
Those losses, however, were pushed to the back of the mind as League and Scottish Cup business took precedence, the disappointment of losing to Ross County tempered in some small measure by the victory over Inverness Caley which takes the Capital club back to Hampden next month with the dream of a second final very much alive.
Throughout, though, Stubbs insisted those matches were nothing more than a bonus, that the priority had, and always would be, a return to the Premiership even if that was now to be via the play-offs.
Now, though, as the Hibs head coach admitted in the wake of another crippling defeat, losing 2-1 to Raith Rovers despite having been in front thanks to Anthony Stokes’ third goal in two games, that proposition has become that little bit harder.
While second place may not carry any direct reward it does reduce the potential number of play-off matches from six to four, a salient point when you consider the Edinburgh outfit face eight league matches next month plus that Scottish Cup semi-final against Dundee United.
Factor in a possible final appearance and the last thing Stubbs and his players, who have already fulfilled 40 fixtures already this season, would want is two extra outings although, given current form and Falkirk’s quiet but unrelenting accumulation of points which now sees them six ahead but with two more games played, that’s becoming a distinct possibility.
“We’re making it hard for ourselves at the moment,” conceded Stubbs in the wake of defeat at Stark’s Park. “But second place isn’t given out just now – it’s given at the end of April. We will keep going, we still have a lot to play for but instead of making it hard for ourselves, we need to make it easy for ourselves.”
However, to do that Hibs need to rediscover not only that defensive solidity which at one time was the best in Britain far less Scotland and ally it to turning the chances created into goals.
In this instance Stubbs was left bemoaning his side’s shortcomings on both fronts, Raith getting their two goals either side of half-time, through Lewis Toshney and Mark Stewart, far too easily while opportunities were scorned, none more so than the gilt-edged opening offered to Jason Cummings who somehow managed to hit the bar from only three yards out with the goal gaping.
The striker, Hibs top scorer but stuck on the 20-goal mark since scoring the winner to knock Hearts out of the Scottish Cup some eight games ago, was immediately hooked, making his displeasure clear as he kicked out at a water bottle and stormed past the away dug out.
Frustrated he might have been, but hinting that the 20-year-old is one whose position may now be under threat, Stubbs, while agreeing he’d have expected anyone to have snapped up that chance, said: “Jason is probably going through one of those phases as striker when he’s thinking he has scored before he has scored.
“That doesn’t help but he had a chance beforehand when his touch let him down. We’ll keep working away with him but we need to start taking chances otherwise you put yourself under pressure for a starting place.
“There are players here waiting to be in that starting position but, to be honest, it’s not just there. We had too many players affected by the pitch. It wasn’t a great surface but we did not deal with it, there were too many poor touches, too many poor passes and they need to do better.
“There’s a few of them who’ve put themselves under real pressure to lose their places.”
And Stubbs revealed it’s not just Cummings who finds his place under threat, saying: “If you analyse the game we have been done by two set pieces. We had good chances but we cannot concede the goals we have conceded and we cannot miss the chances we have missed.
“The first goal is a long ball straight down the middle, I’m not going to name names individually, but we do not deal with it. We spoke at half-time about not letting players get a run on us then what happens? The first corner a player gets a run on us and then we fail to defend the second phase of the corner well enough, not marking on the right side.”
Given Hibs recent run in the league the international break which is now upon us has obviously come at the right time for Stubbs and his players, the head coach “very hopeful” that by the time they return to face St Mirren in Paisley a week on Saturday, injury victims Paul Hanlon, Fraser Fyvie, Dylan McGeouch and, possibly, Dan Carmichael will all be available as will Liam Henderson who sat this one out through suspension.
And if Raith goal scorer Toshney is to be believed that’s certainly the case, the defender, currently playing in midfield as Rovers boss Ray McKinnon copes with his own injury worries, saying: “We knew they would be ‘leggy’. They’d played a cup final and then got a result midweek so it was up to us to put them on the back foot, that’s what the gaffer wanted us to do and I think we did it really well.”
For his part, McKinnon admitted his side had rode their luck, revealing he couldn’t believe Cummings’ miss, but insisted Hibs, too, had enjoyed a few fortunate moments.
He said: “I think we shaded what was a very even game. One of my coaches said when Cummings hitting the bar was maybe the wee bit of luck we haven’t had against Hibs this season.”