Kevin Thomson has backed Hibs to finish the best of the Scottish Premiership’s also-rans after the Easter Road outfit’s hopes of a top-six finish were finally dashed.
Defeat by St Johnstone, their rivals for sixth place, condemned the Edinburgh club to the bottom half of the table for a fourth successive season but, more worryingly for supporters, it left Terry Butcher’s side with only one win in their past 11 league games, raising the spectre that they could be dragged into a battle to avoid the newly introduced play-off spot.
To that end, the only consolation as their coach left McDiarmid Park was the knowledge that every other club facing the same dilemma – Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle, Ross County and St Mirren – had also lost, leaving Hibs no worse off than when they’d set out for Perth earlier in the day.
But while confident that he and his team-mates can avoid that nerve-jangling scenario, Thomson acknowledged that Hibs badly need to get back to winning ways, with a trip across the city to face Championship-bound Hearts next up in what is being dubbed ‘Black Sabbath’, as the outcome of the latest Edinburgh derby could confirm the Jambos’ demotion.
As far as midfield star Thomson was concerned, though, such a prospect was one for the Hibs supporters, as the players are more concerned simply with three points to help ease their own predicament. Asked if he felt his side’s current seven-point cushion over 11th-placed St Mirren was sufficient, Thomson replied: “I think we have enough quality to stay away from it.
“But if you do not win football matches it drags you into the mire. Unfortunately we have not won enough matches recently. I don’t think it’s through a lack of trying, I think the belief is there in the squad, but when you are in a bit of a rut it is sometimes hard to get out of it.
“We’d come to Perth, in my opinion, full of confidence and we were looking forward to the game. I thought we were in control in the first half and felt aggrieved to be 1-0 down at half-time, but in the end they were quite comfortable.
“We have to get back to basics, back to winning football matches. The next challenge for us is to try and finish top of the bottom pack.”
The story of the 90 minutes was, once again, all too familiar, Hibs starting the match brightly but unable to turn superior possession into goals – Butcher afterwards describing his attack as “powder puff” – while Saints took advantage of their opponents’ abysmal strike rate to go ahead, David Wotherspoon’s corner causing mayhem inside the six-yard box, and Steven McLean alert enough to bundle the loose ball past stand-in goalkeeper Sean Murdoch.
Drafted in as No.1 Ben Williams called off to be with his wife Gemma for the birth of their second child, Murdoch was one of six changes made by Butcher from the side which had capitulated against Partick Thistle – two of them were enforced with Paul Hanlon and Duncan Watmore injured – while Thomson came in for his first start since the big Englishman took over from Pat Fenlon.
Thomson confessed to being “a bit surprised” to be recalled, as his only involvement since the beginning of November had been two appearances as a substitute, but he insisted that he was delighted at the same time.
He said: “I want to play, every football player wants to play, and you are disappointed when you don’t. It’s been hard watching but you have to just keep working hard. I kept my head down, I never spoke out of turn. I’ve been respectful in this situation and I’m not going to go into the chats I’ve had with the manager. Everyone can see I haven’t played much football under him, there’s no getting away from that, but hopefully I have given him a bit of food for thought.”
Despite Hibs going in at the interval a goal behind yet again, Butcher believed the changes he had made, including a tweaking of the system played, had worked, and felt the situation was retrievable – although Murdoch had to pull off a superb point-blank save from Wotherspoon’s diving header to keep his side in with a shout.
He said: “I thought it worked very well, they changed their system around to match ours which, I think, was an indication we were doing well, but from their first attack they score.
“At half-time I was saying ‘let’s have 45 minutes of real effort’ but we didn’t start particularly well for whatever reason.”
A second goal, Michael O’Halloran’s low cross ricocheting off the legs of defender Ryan McGivern into the net, more or less finished the game as a contest, a fact confirmed when Danny Haynes was sent off two minutes later for a stamp on Wotherspoon after the pair had collided on the touchline, an easy decision for referee Steven McLean, leaving Saints to see the match out with more than a degree of comfort.
Another couple of notable saves from Murdoch and a slice of luck when Wotherspoon’s cross crashed off Michael Nelson and then the woodwork prevented the winning margin being any greater, but it was all rather inconsequential, the three points enough to give the Perth side a top-six berth for the third season in succession.
Butcher lamented: “Sean Murdoch was easily our best player, he had a tremendous match. But we have done well up to the edge of the box again and been powder puff in and around goal again.”
It was an observation underlined by the fact that while Murdoch was performing heroics at one end, his opposite number Alan Mannus was only troubled once in the entire 90 minutes, the Northern Ireland goalkeeper thrusting up a hand to divert a header from team-mate Frazer Wright which threatened to fly over his head. That was in the ninth minute and other than a Haynes effort which he tugged wide and a Paul Heffernan shot blocked by Wright, that was pretty much it as far as Hibs were concerned as an attacking force