Given Hibs remain fourth in the SPL table, it would seem rather inappropriate to suggest it’s all coming apart at the seams for the Easter Road outfit.
Certainly though, there must be cause for concern for boss Pat Fenlon. He has now seen his side pick up just four points from their last seven matches, a run which has undone much of the good work over the course of the previous three months when Hibs found themselves flirting with top spot. Perhaps an element of surprise was at play, given the troubles the Capital outfit had endured during the previous two seasons, finishing tenth and then hovering far too close to the danger zone for far too long before finally hauling themselves to safety.
The boos which had regularly rung around their stadium in the first half of this year had been replaced by cheers as Hibs boasted the best home record in the league, strong foundations upon which a highly promising season was beginning to be built.
At the end of this one, however, the jeers had returned, the supporters frustrated once again as they watched Fenlon’s players tumble to a third successive league defeat on their own turf, their despair almost as much directed at a generally insipid performance as the result. The fans could almost have forgiven Hibs surrendering a two-goal lead against Motherwell on their last outing at Easter Road given the convincing display they’d produced in the first hour of that match, probably reckoning it would be enough to see off most opponents if produced on a regular basis.
Their hurt at Motherwell’s stunning comeback was eased somewhat by a reasonable point away to Kilmarnock, giving rise to the feeling that a repeat of that whirlwind start which had nearly blown the Steelmen away would be enough to take care of Ross County – even if Derek Adams’ team had won the opening counter of the season in Dingwall, the Staggies having plenty of time on the journey south to contemplate their own miserable record of nine matches without a win.
Instead, Fenlon’s side made the tamest of starts to the game, with their visitors making their intentions clear from the first whistle, adopting a 4-5-1 formation which flooded the midfield and denied Fenlon’s players any space whatsoever in which to work, the upshot being the most tedious opening 45 minutes of football you are ever likely to witness.
Other than skipper James McPake throwing himself at a Leigh Griffiths’ corner and just failing to make enough contact to divert the ball into former Hibs goalkeeper Mark Brown’s net, the only other effort they managed throughout the half was a long-range shot from Tim Clancy, making his comeback after two months out injured, which almost ended up in the top tier of the South Stand.
County had done nothing to trouble Ben Williams at the other end but, as Adams game plan probably envisaged, they made the most of the only opening which came their way, Iain Vigurs sending in a speculative cross which found fellow midfielder Richard Brittain on the run, the ex-Livingston man sending a looping header beyond Williams from a good 14 yards out.
“I just said to myself to try to put it on target, you never know,” revealed Brittain who looked as startled as anyone to see the ball end up in the net, adding: “The pace was all on the ball, I didn’t have too much to do other than just get it on target and fortunately I did.”
Brittain’s goal finally sparked Hibs into life, although the game descended into a somewhat scrappy affair for a while before Fenlon’s players got a good grip on proceedings as referee John Beaton looked like losing the plot at one stage – flashing the yellow card three times in as many minutes as tempers flared, much of it down to the time the whistler took to note one name with Hibs naturally anxious to get on with proceedings.
When they did so Ryan McGivern twice delivered superb crosses from the left, only to see Eoin Doyle, who had scored three in his previous two games, head over from just six yards out before Leigh Griffiths’, Hibs’ top scorer but now without a goal in seven matches, nodded the second straight into the arms of Brown.
Between those attempts Brown pushed away a netbound effort from Jorge Claros and was then relieved as he spilled a low shot from Griffiths which was pounced upon by Doyle to see the offside flag flash up. Afterwards former Hibs assistant boss Adams made no apology for the way he had set out his team, reckoning: “Hibs didn’t really create much which was good from my point of view.
“They have a lot of dangerous players, Leigh Griffiths especially, but we kept him quite and they did not really trouble our goal which was the main purpose of the afternoon and being able to score as well made it a big three points in this tight division.”
For his part, Fenlon was left scratching his head as to just why his players came nowhere near producing the sort of form they had in that first hour against Motherwell although he argued, with much justification, that this was a match his side didn’t deserve to lose.
He said: “We didn’t play well, but I do not think we set out with the right tempo at the start. We were the home team and we had to make sure we started the game better than that, the emphasis was on us to go and win the game but I don’t think we did that.
“I thought we looked a bit flat and were maybe waiting for something to happen rather than going and making something happen. We needed to move the ball quicker but we only really reacted after they scored and that’s not good enough.”
It would come as no surprise to learn Fenlon made his feelings known at half-time, but even then he didn’t the desired response. He said: “We spoke about getting the tempo up but we were flat again.
“We’d gone to Kilmarnock, did quite well and we said after that game we needed to back that up with three points at home, that would have made the point we got there a better point. So we are bitterly disappointed.”
The saving grace for Hibs as they’ve struggled for points in recent weeks is that with the exception of Inverness Caley and Motherwell – who have shown just what a few positive results can do – most teams find themselves in exactly the same position, unable to string any meaningful run together.
Hibs had entered the Festive period with Fenlon stating that any side which could muster nine – or even all 12 – points from the four-match programme would benefit their cause hugely.
Now, though, his side have tough clashes at home to Celtic and then away to Hearts in which to redress the balance before the winter break – a tough ask at any time, but particularly so at this moment.