Not too long ago all the talk was of Hibs and the remarkable transformation engineered by Pat Fenlon, his side having soared from second bottom to second top as they took the rest of the SPL by surprise.
Today, though, the talk is not of chasing Celtic, of clinching that runners-up spot or even of claiming a European place, but simply whether or not Fenlon’s players can cling onto a place in the top six.
Slowly but surely, the Easter Road side have slipped from grace, just one win in their last ten league games, incredibly against a Celtic team which has now disappeared over the horizon, 21 points ahead of the Capital outfit. Rather than look out the binoculars in the hope of catching a glimpse of Neil Lennon’s troops, Fenlon’s stars are now glancing anxiously over their shoulders, a clutch of clubs hard on their heels, many of them with a game in hand, with just five points separating them from St Mirren, who are next up in Paisley this weekend.
Only seven points have been gathered since the end of November, a galling run of form in anyone’s language, although Hibs, of course, retain an interest in the William Hill Scottish Cup with hopes high of making further progress when they face Kilmarnock in the quarter-finals early next month.
A true measure of a team’s well-being, however, is reflected by what they achieve in the league, the marathon rather than the sprint of cup competition when the luck of the draw and one-off matches play such a major part in deciding a club’s fate.
Today the fear among Hibs fans is that all the good work of earlier in the season is being frittered away, last night’s performance against St Johnstone bringing back memories of last season, Fenlon’s side falling apart at the first sign of adversity rather than being the resolute, determined bunch they’ve been over the past few months.
Fenlon would be the first to admit that there has been more than one occasion this season when it’s been that grit and never-say-die attitude which has brought a reward in the shape of a victory or draw when it’s perhaps not been entirely deserved, balanced by those days when there’s been a belief the final result hasn’t provided a true reflection of the preceding 90 minutes.
Last night, though, Fenlon could do no more than admit Hibs had been distinctly second best to a Saints side they’d already defeated twice this season, Steve Lomas’ players having got their noses in front through Rowan Vine midway through the first half, bossing the match and running out well-deserved winners.
While Hibs, as everyone knows, haven’t been firing on all cylinders recently, they have, at least, proved very difficult to beat. Only four goals conceded in their previous eight games – including the Cup win over Aberdeen – had helped mask the fact that they’d managed only four of their own over that period, but this time few could have quibbled with Lomas’ assertion that his side’s margin of victory could easily have been two or three goals greater.
Both teams had gone into the match with plenty of incentive. Victory for Hibs would see them go level on points with Inverness Caley and Motherwell. For Saints, it was the thought of leapfrogging their opponents and into fourth place.
So why Hibs should turn in such an insipid performance rather than displaying the confidence their manager believed they should have gained from their cup win against Aberdeen left Fenlon and the fans dismayed.
The fact they did so on a night when it all fell into place for Saints only served to heighten the despair among the majority of supporters in what was Easter Road’s smallest crowd of the season, one reduced no doubt by the fact the match, and others, was live on television on a bitingly cold night.
Nevertheless, Hibs fans have remained stubbornly reluctant to turn out, with only more than 3000 Aberdeen supporters at the Cup game lifting the gate into five figures.
Fenlon has stated more than once that they will do so when they have a winning team to support, a claim borne out by crowds earlier in the season, but once again they’re proving hard to entice along given the indifferent results achieved recently and the manner of this defeat will do little if anything to persuade them to return in the immediate future.
While St Johnstone enjoyed the better of the early sparring there appeared nothing between the teams until Steven MacLean left fly with a shot which swerved a bit in the air but nevertheless appeared to catch Ben Williams by surprise, the Hibs goalkeeper only managing to knock it down in front of him.
Vine was the first to react as the home defence froze, driving the rebound home before doubling St Johnstone’s lead four minutes later, squaring up Alan Maybury before curling a shot beyond Williams and the lunge of Ryan McGivern behind him.
Hibs were left stunned and it could have been much worse when McGivern lunged in on Mehdi Abeid, bringing the on-loan Newcastle United player down, but then Williams maintained his incredible run of penalty saves, throwing himself to his left to save his fifth spot-kick, his third in four games and his second of the season against the McDiarmid Park club.
That MacLean had taken the penalty rather than let Vine complete his hat-trick surprised many, but Lomas recalled how Nigel Hasselbaink had stepped in ahead of others to see his effort from 12 yards saved the last time these two teams met, the upshot being Paul Cairney going to the other end of the park to claim the winner for Hibs.
He said: “Rowan probably fancied taking it, but we decided after what happened last time that once the taker was decided before the game we’d stick with it. Unfortunately he missed, but all credit to the goalkeeper, that’s five out of seven he’s saved, an unbelievable ratio.”
Nevertheless, Lomas confessed he worried Williams might just have thrown his side a lifeline but there was no cause to fret, the irrepressible Murray Davidson, head and shoulders above any Hibs player on the night, finding former Hibs midfielder Patrick Cregg to fire Saints three up.
“From start to finish the lads were absolutely exceptional,” purred Lomas. “I thought we thoroughly deserved it and had it been two or three more there could not have been much complaint.”
Hibs, on the other hand, found openings as rare to come by as they have over the past couple of months. Fenlon becomes irked when it’s suggested his side are over-reliant on Leigh Griffiths, pointing out that others such as Eoin Doyle, David Wotherspoon and Paul Cairney have scored while Gary Deegan claimed that wonder strike against the Dons.
But the fact remains that when Griffiths – who has had some off-field “distractions” to cope with in recent weeks – isn’t on the scoresheet, Hibs do struggle somewhat to find sufficient goals to win games.
Griffiths had managed just two in his previous 13 matches, but he lifted his tally for the season to 16 with a consolation goal for Hibs, holding off David McCracken as they pursued substitute Danny Handling’s long ball before tucking it behind Saints goalkeeper Alan Mannus.
At long last the home fans, or at least those who had remained within the ground, had something to cheer as did the sight of the fourth official’s board announcing four minutes of added-on time.
It was, though, too little too late for Hibs.