KENNY SHIELS questioned whether Hibs could cope with the pressure of being at the top end of the SPL table rather than bumping along at the bottom as they had over the past couple of years.
Well, Pat Fenlon’s players showed the Kilmarnock boss they do have a head for heights, and only a late winner from Motherwell’s Michael Higdon prevented them from sitting at the very summit of Scottish football today.
Whether they will still be there at the end of it all remains to be seen, but, for the moment at least, they are happy just to enjoy being something of a surprise package and, of course, an unbeaten league run which they’ve now stretched to five games.
What possibly has gone unnoticed is that, although it is still early in the campaign, the Easter Road outfit remain unbeaten at home, this their second win on their own turf, a feat it took them a whole 11 months to achieve last season.
Sure it was a hard-fought victory, one which Shiels naturally felt Hibs didn’t deserve, pointing out their goals had come via a blunder from Rugby Park goalkeeper Kyle Letheren and a controversial penalty, but it was, nonetheless, the sort of win which the Capital club might not have gained only a few months ago as skipper James McPake admitted. The big defender said: “It’s probably the worst we have played all season except for the Dundee United game when we did not play at all.
“It’s encouraging when you do not play well and are still picking up results. But the run delights us more than where we are in the table.”
After an untidy start, Hibs snatched the lead when, having pushed Leigh Griffiths’ shot round the post, Letheren allowed the on-loan Wolves star’s corner to slip through his hands and into the top corner of the net despite a heroic effort from team-mate Rory McKeown to head clear.
Would Griffiths be credited with it, or would it go down as an own goal? Like all good strikers, Griffiths immediately laid claim to it, manager Fenlon saying: “There’s no doubt about that. People ask us why we have Leigh taking corners and free-kicks when he is our top scorer, but that’s the reason why – his delivery is first class.”
Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams kept Hibs level with a tremendous one-one-one save from Killie’s Borja Perez only two minutes later, but blotted his copybook by flapping at a McKeown cross, the ball dropping for Danny Racchi to slide home on the angle.
But Griffiths fired them ahead again on the stroke of half-time, drilling a low shot from the penalty spot into the corner of the net after Killie defender Ryan O’Leary had been adjudged to have tripped Paul Cairney.
Not so, insisted O’Leary and his manager, while McPake and Fenlon agreed referee Steven McLean had been spot-on with his decision.
Calling for a retrospective ban to be imposed on Cairney for conning the ref, Shiels moaned: “He ran straight into my player looking for a penalty. I’m not criticising the referee by the way, but when the video evidence comes up I feel that player should be suspended. There was no contact, even with my poor eyesight from 50 yards away I could see that.
“I don’t even have to see replays. We know.”
Fenlon admitted he initially felt the decision had been harsh, but having watched a replay of the incident he was equally adamant McLean had got it right. He said: “The referee is in a good position and it is definitely a penalty.”
The penalty may have ended the scoring, but the second half still had plenty of action and incident packed into it.
Letheren managed to beat away another Griffiths effort before one-time Hibs trialist Cillian Sheridan almost marked his Kilmarnock debut with a downward header which scraped past the post as the visitors began cranking up the pressure on the Easter Road defence. It all became a bit desperate at times as Hibs battled to hang on to their lead, Williams redeeming himself for that earlier error deep into added-on time with a brilliant point-blank save from Michael Nelson, although Eoin Doyle appeared to have soothed the nerves moments earlier when he slotted home Cairney’s pass only to find he had strayed inches offside.
In the past couple of seasons, such a finale would have seen the home fans’ anxiety seep into those on the pitch, but, as both Fenlon and McPake noted, this time round they threw their full support behind the team.
McPake admitted: “With five minutes to go it was the fans who saw us through. We need to give them something back. They were right to be fearful last season because we were a bad team, but they came out when we needed them and we need to build something for them to buy into.”
Fenlon added: “The players showed a desire and togetherness but what was important was that when we were under the cosh late on the supporters got behind us.
“Last year they might have got a bit edgy, but they know – and they see it week in, week out – the players are working hard and when we came under the cosh in those last ten or 15 minutes they rallied, responded to it and gave the players a lift.
“You need that togetherness, particularly when you are playing at home.” Fenlon revealed he was also relieved his side hadn’t fallen flat on their faces following their spirited performance at Celtic Park a fortnight earlier which had seen them twice come from behind to take a point.
He said: “We spoke after that game and again before this one, about how that point would be better if we could back it up with a win at home.
“Last year we went to Celtic Park, got a no-scoring draw and then lost at home to Dunfermline.
“It was important to continue this run with decent results, then if you do have a bad one it doesn’t affect the players the way it probably has done over the past couple of years.”