A few weeks ago it was “nine cup finals” in the chase for a top-six finish. Today, it’s eight battles to avoid being dragged into the dreaded play-off place.
While a glance at the Scottish Premiership table will tell you Hibs still remain closer to a berth in the upper half than second bottom, Terry Butcher’s side have taken on the appearance of a team in freefall.
Just one win in their past ten league matches and a mere seven points out of a possible 30 taken, a side which conceded only two goals in Butcher’s first seven games in charge, is now shipping three on an alarmingly regular basis.
The resilience, determination and perseverance which characterised that promising period after Butcher had replaced Pat Fenlon has, apparently, evaporated. But why? The soaring confidence gained in that time – a run which saw Hibs lose just once (and by a single goal at Celtic Park) in nine matches encapsulating a halcyon few days at the turn of the year when Ross County, Kilmarnock and Hearts were all beaten – is now but a distant memory.
Yes, a slim chance of overhauling sixth-placed St Johnstone remains, more thanks to Ross County’s surprise win at McDiarmid Park on Saturday than anything else, but that’s a sliver of hope which could finally vanish when Hibs make the trip to Perth this weekend. And, despite Saints’ setback, few would bet on Butcher’s players grabbing the lifeline which is still dangling before them.
Once again, matchday followed a depressingly familiar pattern, the Easter Road side making a decent start to the game only to lose their way, hand the initiative to their opponents and then leave themselves with too much to do.
Only once in their past ten matches – when you include the Scottish Cup defeat by Raith Rovers – have Hibs taken the lead and, on that occasion, they went on to beat Ross County more comfortably than the 2-1 scoreline might suggest.
There have, of course, been spirited fightbacks, most notably coming from two goals down against Motherwell to have victory snatched from them with virtually the last kick of the game, but, as Butcher has stated time and again, it’s wins and not draws which will take Hibs to where they want to be. However, as things stand, even the improbable scenario of three victories before the split might not be enough given Saints’ four-point lead and game in hand.
It’s at times like this the usual cliches about things not being over until it is mathematically impossible are bandied about, more in hope than expectation. At the same time, though, a growing number of Hibs fans are now glancing anxiously over their shoulder with only seven points separating them from second-bottom St Mirren, the Paisley outfit, like Ross County and Partick Thistle two points ahead of them, having played a game less than the Capital club.
Hibs could have done themselves a huge favour on both counts by taking all three points from Firhill. A win would not only have widened the gap between seventh and ninth, and so easing the nerves of all but, given events in Perth a couple of hours later, taken them hard on the heels of St Johnstone.
The early signs in Maryhill looked good, Hibs dominating the early stages as Partick were careless in possession and slack in their marking, but once again the Capital side’s lack of a cutting edge – just 29 goals scored in their 30 matches – proved to be their undoing.
Jason Cummings, starting for the first time in eight matches in a bid to add greater firepower, spurned a golden opportunity as he broke against an outnumbered home defence with James Collins in acres of space on his right. But the teenager delayed his pass, allowing Stephen O’Donnell to make up yards to rob Collins. Hibs also enjoyed a number of corners, set-pieces having been a profitable source of goals, but on this occasion they were unable to make any count.
The Jags slowly grew in confidence and, with Chris Erskine and Kallum Higginbotham providing width on the flanks, they hauled themselves into the game. The hosts pushed Hibs back until the inevitable breakthrough came, Higginbotham’s low cross dummied by Kris Doolan for Erskine to hammer high into the net.
Bad enough, but when Lee Mair lost Ryan McGivern to nod Higginbotham’s deep cross into the net, victory was, in effect, beyond Hibs.
Duncan Watmore did provide a glimmer of hope with his first goal in a green-and-white shirt, but as Butcher’s men pushed for an equaliser – which almost came when Paul Heffernan’s driven cross thumped off O’Donnell only for goalkeeper Paul Gallacher to pull off a great reflex stop – Higginbotham broke to add a third. No less than Partick deserved.
Butcher may have endured some grim days in recent weeks, but his demeanour afterwards said it all, the big Englishman clearly at the end of his tether as he threatened, not for the first time, to wield the axe and give some of the talented youngsters at his disposal a run at the expense of senior professionals who he believes are letting him, the club and the fans down so badly. He said: “We had a lot of good possession in the first half, but failed to score or even to trouble Paul Gallacher.
“The goal just before half-time lifted them, but we were thinking ‘let’s have a go’ just as when we were 2-1 down to Motherwell the other week and came back strong. Then we lose a goal from a free-kick. I asked the players whose turn it is to throw one in next week. It’s as if they are drawing straws before games and whoever gets the short one gives the goal away. That’s what it looks like to me. Unbelievable. Hibs fans have seen these performances so many times.”
Hailing youngsters Sam Stanton and Watmore as Hibs’ two best players, Butcher revealed he’s ready to turn to youth in a bid to stop the rot. He said: “They were excellent, our best players by a street – but they were let down by others.
“It will be an interesting team selection next week. I do not like being let down. I’d rather go with kids and lose. We have one or two we can bring in. We have eight battles left – eight wars, really – and I want people in there who will fight and scrap. Kids will do that because they are honest and will have a go.”