Just when they probably thought the worst was past, the knife was twisted for those Hibs fans who had made the long journey to Inverness when it was announced all trains heading south would be “dry”.
A stiff drink was probably just what they needed having watched Pat Fenlon’s side well and truly beaten by a Caley team which, having seen their place at the top of the Scottish Premiership taken from them a couple of hours earlier by Celtic, stormed back to the summit thanks to the third of the three goals they put past Easter Road goalkeeper Ben Williams.
It wouldn’t, of course, have changed anything, but perhaps made the thought of yet another bleak return from the banks of the Moray Firth a little more bearable.
The “Tulloch Caledonian Stadium” hasn’t been the happiest of venues for Hibs down through the years, the Capital side invariably sent packing. Their previous 12 visits having conjured up just two victories while this was the fourth 3-0 hammering in the nine defeats which have now been inflicted.
With Terry Butcher’s men having won all three Premiership matches without conceding a goal this season the thought of what lay ahead at the other end of the A9 wasn’t any less daunting for Hibs, although there was room for cautious optimism, Fenlon’s players having apparently overcome that miserable start to the season by stringing together a run of six matches unbeaten which had propelled them not only into the top six but the quarter-finals of the Scottish Communities League Cup.
Such hope, however, was quickly extinguished, Billy McKay claiming his eighth goal of the season in the opening minutes, aided and abetted by a horrific mix-up between goalkeeper Williams and centre half Michael Nelson. There was a clear, if somewhat belated, shout of “keeper” as Graeme Shinnie’s cross took a slight nick off Lewis Stevenson, back on the right with veteran defender Alan Maybury nursing a knock. It was enough to cause Nelson a split-second’s hesitation before getting his body out of the way.
Despite his call, Williams, standing almost immediately behind his team-mate, seemed to be caught unawares, the ball ricocheting off his chest and into the path of McKay. A schoolboy error with both Williams and Nelson culpable, the goalkeeper for having called for the ball only to drop it and the experienced defender for not following the simplest of rules – if in doubt put it out.
“It was a poor mistake,” admitted Fenlon, “It’s difficult enough to come here without gifting goals and that made it more difficult for us.”
Hard enough, but it could have been worse within minutes, Paul Hanlon thrusting out a leg to intercept Aaron Doran’s pass intended for McKay having given the ball away and then James Vincent robbing McGivern before playing in the perfect pass for the on-fire striker, who, thankfully for Hibs, fired wide having outstripped the visiting defence.
Paul Heffernan could, and probably should, have hauled Hibs level before the interval, latching on to Scott Robertson’s head flick as he ran in behind the Caley defence only to shoot well wide of goalkeeper Dean Brill’s left hand post.
While disappointed to be behind, the travelling support wasn’t too downhearted, probably recalling how Hibs had gone behind in both their previous matches “on the road” to Kilmarnock and St Johnstone only to stage an impressive fight-back to snatch all three points on both occasions. And for the superstitious, Fenlon’s players were wearing their all-black alternative strip as they had at Rugby Park and then McDiarmid Park.
It all proved to be grasping at straws, however, as Caley hit the Edinburgh club with a quick one-two just as Fenlon had French kid Abdellah Zoubir warming up, the clear intention being to introduce a greater touch of pace, trickery and creativity to his side. At one goal down there was obviously the chance that the on-loan midfielder could do so, but by the time he replaced Tom Taiwo Hibs were three down and seeking only a consolation strike.
Nick Ross eluded McGivern, probably too easily for the left -back’s liking before delivering a deep cross beyond the back post for Ben Greenhalgh to head back into the danger area, the ball looping over Williams to hit the bar and fall kindly for skipper Richie Foran to drill it through a ruck of players and into the net.
If there was a touch of luck about that goal there was no doubting the quality of McKay’s second of the game, the Northern Ireland striker, identified by countryman McGivern as the biggest threat to Hibs, twisting and turning before thumping a superb shot into Williams’ bottom right hand corner, although questions would undoubtedly have been asked as Fenlon, his assistant Jimmy Nicholl, goalkeeping coach Scott Thomson and Maybury conducted a post-mortem on the touchline after the final whistle, as to why such a dangerous player wasn’t closed down.
Afterwards Fenlon insisted the result should be kept in perspective, pointing out it was the first in six league games his side had lost, although he admitted they did not deserve to win this one.
He said: “I didn’t think there was much in the game in the first half. We had a chance with Heffs. They had a decent chance and took it, but it was a sloppy goal from our point-of-view. Second half they were a lot better than us. They showed more hunger and desire to win the game. We just didn’t turn up in the second half.”
Fenlon would have been aware, though, that Caley could have run out even more emphatic winners, McKay blasting an early second half shot wide, Raven seeing a cross land on top of the bar while McKay and Doran both found their way to goal blocked in the final minutes.
In stark contrast, Hibs’ chances were few and far between, the biggest threat to Brill coming from a rather wayward and powerful header from Raven which had the goalkeeper diving low to ensure Caley ended the match with the proud boast of having not conceded a goal at home this season. Having said that, there were a few signs of unease at times in the home defence, particularly under a series of Craig corners in the first half, which, had Hibs managed to exert more pressure in the final third, might have given Inverness’ back four a more testing 90 minutes.