Home games hold key to Hibs’ hopes of surviving

IN THE THICK OF IT: Hibs manager Terry Butcher and his No.2 Maurice Malpas
IN THE THICK OF IT: Hibs manager Terry Butcher and his No.2 Maurice Malpas
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The arithmetic looks pretty simple and straightforward, with five clubs each vying for nine points from three games.

The reality, though, is much more complex as the fans of Hibs, St Mirren, Partick Thistle, Ross County and Kilmarnock attempt to calculate just how many – or how few – points it’s going to take for their club to avoid that dreaded 11th-place finish and with it a nail-biting relegation play-off.

While a maximum return from the final fixtures is the obvious aim for each of the protagonists, again, the fact is that in the dog-eat-dog world which they now inhabit they are not all going to reach that total, a situation which leaves the supporters trying to work out exactly where each precious point can be squeezed from.

It is, of course, far from an exact science and with just two points separating seventh-placed St Mirren from Killie in 11th, none of the clubs can say with any certainty that come the final whistle a week on Saturday they will be saved from having to go head-to-head with a Championship side with their place in the Scottish Premiership at stake.

Making the situation all the more complicated is the sight of Hibs, Ross County and Partick all locked on 34 points, although the Easter Road outfit find themselves under the closest scrutiny, having been in freefall since early January with just one win in their 15 league matches in that period.

It’s a run which left many raising a quizzical eyebrow when Terry Butcher, in the wake of yet another derby-day defeat, declared his confidence that Hibs would claw their way to safety if they could repeat the performance produced against Hearts in each of their remaining matches, starting with a visit from Partick on Saturday.

But today the Hibs boss found an ally in former Easter Road striker Steve Cowan who, in his role as a Radio Forth commentator, has seen each of the clubs in danger in recent weeks. In his estimation, this weekend’s match and Killie’s trip to the Capital on the final day of the season hold the key to his old club’s survival although they have a long journey to Ross County sandwiched between those fixtures.

Hibs ended up among the biggest losers from last weekend’s action, with Saints, the Staggies and the Jags all picking up points but, like Butcher, Cowan professes to have seen enough in their derby display to offer a glimmer of optimism.

He said: “I thought Hibs gave their most spirited performance against Hearts. Sunday was the most aggressive I have seen Hibs for a while and they played some reasonable football as well which hopefully will give the fans some encouragement. I thought they could count themselves unlucky not to get a draw and they would have done had James Collins done much better with that late opportunity he was presented with.

“Overall Hibs came out of the weekend the losers. It’s now a five-way fight to avoid 11th but Hibs, like Partick and Ross County, still have that slight advantage over Kilmarnock. To me, the homes games against Partick and Killie will be the key, although it will be important the fans stay behind them.

“Seeing supporters leave when Hearts went two up would be disheartening but you only have to hark back to the Dunfermline game a couple of seasons ago to see the impact a big, passionate home crowd can have. Every team is going to be nervous going into these final few matches so supporters have to be patient, make sure they get right behind the team and if the players respond and reproduce the sort of performance they had against Hearts then I can honestly see them taking four points from these two home games.”

Cowan believes it will be more of a struggle for Hibs to emerge with anything to show from Tuesday’s visit to Dingwall even if they have beaten Derek Adams’ side three games in succession, with two of those victories coming on the Black Isle. However, County themselves have a tough away game against St Mirren this weekend.

“St Mirren have hit a good run at just the right time, coming from behind to beat Motherwell before defeating Hibs despite having ten men for most of the match,” said Cowan. “They followed that up with a good point away to Partick and are unbeaten in their last four. Their confidence will have been buoyed by those results and I am sure Danny Lennon will want to get everything done and dusted as quickly as possible.”

While Hibs, along with the Buddies, enjoy the advantage of two out of three games at home, it’s the reverse for Partick, Ross County and Killie, although, as Cowan pointed out, the Jags have won more games on the road than at Firhill, which will give them hope as they follow up their visit to Easter Road with a trip to Tynecastle next midweek.

And although Hearts have been relegated, Cowan believes Gary Locke’s players can have a big say over the closing stages of the season, particularly as far as Killie, who play in Gorgie on Sunday, and Thistle are concerned. He said: “Hearts are unbeaten in their last five matches and have won four of them and I am sure Gary wants to win the final three as well.

“Hearts will want to show that had it not been for the 15-point deduction for going into administration they wouldn’t have been the bottom club, while Gary wants to be manager next season and won’t want to go into discussions with the new regime on the back of three defeats. I saw Killie win 4-0 at Tynecastle on Boxing Day with Kris Boyd scoring two but, even so, I’d expect Hearts to win this one.”

The supporters of the respective clubs may think otherwise at this particular moment in time, but, as far as Cowan is concerned, the introduction of the play-off has been a great move. He said: “It’s given everyone something to talk about, every game in the bottom half is going to mean something which hasn’t been the case in previous seasons when a team has been relegated long before the end and rendered the other matches rather meaningless.

“It’s added a bit of spice, players are playing for their futures. If they are out of contract they are trying to win a new one either at their current club or by impressing anyone who’s watching and for the younger players it’s exposing them to pressure, letting them see if they can handle it.

“What it’s also shown is down there the teams are pretty much of a muchness so it’s a case of who has the two or three with a bit of quality who can carry them over the line.”

And Cowan also had a word of encouragement for whichever club does eventually find itself battling to stay in the top flight. He said: “I honestly believe that whoever finishes 11th will find it quite comfortable, especially over two legs, to cope with whoever they play from the Championship.”