THE next 180 minutes of football will define Hibs’ season.
However, this defeat surely brought an end to any hopes the Easter Road side had of earning a place in the top half of the SPL table.
It was always going to be a tough ask, games against Motherwell, Inverness and a trip to Parkhead next week to face Celtic, the trio of matches which round off their fixtures before the split.
Defeat in the first of those games was followed by another loss to Terry Butcher’s Caley and now their only hope is to bring all three points home from Parkhead and hope that results elsewhere go their way.
A deflected goal from Leigh Griffiths – the initial shot had come from Gary Deegan well outside the box – had given Hibs some hope after they had fallen behind to the Highlanders.
But when Caley got themselves back in front, this time with the aid of a deflection off James McPake, it always looked like the visitors would come out on top.
Of course, Hibs still have the carrot of a Scottish Cup semi-final to come against Falkirk in a fortnight’s time but, having sat proudly in second place in the Premier League table at the front end of the campaign, missing out at this stage will be a sore one for the players and supporters to take.
Striker Eoin Doyle admits that it has been disappointing to find themselves in this position, after flying high at the start of the season.
They have won just two from their last 16 matches in the SPL and only one from their last nine matches at Easter Road.
Doyle said: “We don’t really let it play on our minds. We have got one game left to try to secure a place in the top six and we will give nothing less than 100 per cent to try to achieve it.
“It’s hard to pinpoint the problem but obviously Saturday wasn’t good enough.
“We conceded sloppy goals. We never seem to get those kind of sloppy goals going in at the other end for us.
“We all love playing at this stadium. It is a great stadium, with great fans and that’s not something that we think about.
“We have struggled at home but we look forward to playing at Easter Road.” However, he reckons that the squad won’t allow themselves to dwell on what has gone wrong this season and instead will focus fully on getting all three points against Celtic next weekend.
Doyle said: “The season itself still has a lot to play for and we still have things to achieve in two competitions.
“It would be nice to get into the top six and get something that we have been pushing for all season long.
“If we can do that next week then we can go into the game against Falkirk looking forward to it.
“It didn’t go the way that we wanted it to against Inverness and we are all very disappointed in ourselves but we have got to look on to next week now and the game against Celtic. Hopefully we can snatch something out of that.
“We would like to think that we could go to Parkhead and win. They haven’t beaten us at all this season.
“We know that it is a big ask, obviously, but it is one that we believe we are capable of.”
The Easter Road side could have been in front inside the opening seconds of the game when youngster Alex Harris stabbed Doyle’s ball out to Kevin Thomson and the former Middlesbrough midfielder’s shot was only held at the second attempt by Inverness keeper Antonio Reguero.
At the other end Owain Tudor Jones unleashed an effort from 20 yards and was unlucky to see it fizz just inches past Ben Williams’ right-hand post.
Those apart, chances were few and far between in a poor first half, the majority of the moves being broken down before they reached the final third.
A brilliant ball from Ross Draper set Doran free in 37 minutes but again the Caley man just couldn’t get a shot in on Williams’ goal and then an overhead kick from Willie McKay flew just wide. Within minutes of the restart though Caley found their way to goal.
They edged in front when a ball from Richie Foran was met by Draper and he lobbed it high over Williams – who couldn’t get enough on it despite taking a step back towards his goal – and into the net.
The Hibs keeper was raging to lose the goal and screamed at his defence, who had left him badly exposed, and the Caley man in space.
Hibs could have hit back through Griffiths, after determined work from Thomson saw him poke the ball into the path of Doyle, despite being fouled by Foran all the way.
Doyle raced in on goal, looked up and squared the ball for Griffiths but Reguero did enough to get a hand to his shot and deny him the goal.
However Hibs were back on level terms just before the hour mark when Deegan’s long-range shot came off Griffiths’ body and wrong-footed Reguero to find its way into the back of the net.
Griffiths’ strikes have kept Hibs’ hopes alive right up to this stage but Doyle conceded that he and his team-mates must start to weigh in with goals of their own to support him.
“Leigh has been on fire this season,” he continued, “and, yes, maybe the rest of us could be chipping in a bit more to help him out.
“All we can do is keep plugging away now.
“We have got 90 minutes left to try to achieve something out of the league this season. We will give it our all to try and do that.” Griffiths’ goal gave Hibs hope but Caley got their noses back in front within a matter of minutes.
They also had a deflection to thank for their goal, Andrew Shinnie’s effort cannoning off the unfortunate McPake on its way into the net.
Inverness manager Terry Butcher took the salute from the away supporters at the end of the 90 minutes and is clearly enjoying his role right now.
With the top six already safe and the possibility of a place in Europe even on the horizon, Butcher admits that he is starting to relax. He said: “I was extremely happy with the result and I thought that we deserved it in the end because we made some good chances and looked as though we could have scored more.
“The last time I was at Easter Road, we lost the League Cup semi-final, so it was nice to lay that ghost to rest.
“I enjoyed the game, I sat there and watched it, legs crossed. I was relaxed and it was good.”