“Normal service has been resumed,” beamed Inverness Caley boss Terry Butcher after watching his players recover from their first defeat of the season by crushing Hibs yet again on the banks of the Moray Firth.
Butcher, of course, was commenting on the efforts of his side but, as Easter Road star Lewis Stevenson is well aware, critics of the Easter Road club will be all to ready to take his words out of context and seek to apply them to Pat Fenlon’s team after their six-match unbeaten run was brought to an abrupt end.
Fenlon himself conceded as much when asked if the 3-0 defeat could be considered a blip or something more serious, the Irishman, having taken some heavy flak during an ignominious start to the season, suggesting that a good many will opt for the latter just because it’s Hibs. Like Fenlon, however, Stevenson insisted matters should be kept in perspective, that the defeat was inflicted by a side sitting top of the Scottish Premiership having now won all four games at home without conceding a single goal; that it was Hibs’ first loss since the derby at Tynecastle seven weeks previously and, despite Saturday’s reverse, they remain in the upper half of the table even if it is still in an early-season embryonic state.
Equally, though, Stevenson contended that on a collective basis he and his team-mates, having conceded only five goals in their previous seven league games, had to treat conceding three in the one game, a statistic which reflected a miserable performance against Caley, as a “wake-up call” and realise their hitherto impressive run of results couldn’t be looked upon as having suddenly turned them into the finished article.
It was a third successive defeat for Hibs to Caley who have proved, home and away, to be one of the Capital club’s trickier opponents, although their poor record appeared to be changing when, in the season before last, they won both games in the Highlands, a first ever at the Caledonian Tulloch Stadium under Colin Calderwood followed by a triumph for Fenlon on his first trip to the other end of the A9.
But today Stevenson admitted Fenlon’s players now had plenty of time to contemplate just how things went so badly awry with their next match not until Monday when they travel to face top-flight new boys Partick Thistle at Firhill.
And, he agreed, there’s more than enough to keep their minds occupied. He said: “Obviously we are bitterly disappointed, we were on a good unbeaten run and we wanted to keep that going. We were building a bit of momentum, our preparation for the game was good and we’d headed up there with high hopes of getting a result.
“However, if anyone was thinking we were the finished article given our previous results then that was certainly a wake-up call because all over the park Caley were better than us, we just weren’t good enough on the day. I think, though, that you have to give Caley more than a little credit, that’s four straight wins at home this season without conceding a goal – the sort of record any club is crying out for.”
The high hopes with which Fenlon’s players had travelled the night before began to evaporate after just ten minutes thanks to a horrific mix-up between goalkeeper Ben Williams and centre half Michael Nelson which gifted Caley hotshot Billy McKay his eighth goal of the season, Stevenson dismissing the moment as “one of those things that happens” in the course of a match.
If there was a touch of misfortune on Hibs’ part in that instance, Stevenson insisted Caley enjoyed a little good luck as skipper Richie Foran put his side further ahead with the first of two quick-fire goals in three second-half minutes, McKay completing the rout by taking his tally to nine.
Stevenson, like most of those viewing proceedings from the stands, thought there was little danger as Nick Ross eluded Hibs left back Ryan McGivern before swinging in a cross well beyond the far post only for substitute Ben Greenhalgh to head it back in the direction it had come from, the ball clipping Williams’ bar before dropping kindly for Foran.
Stevenson said: “I was picking up at the back post and was thinking ‘what can he do here?’ The only place he was probably going to cause trouble he managed to hit, anywhere else I don’t think it would have ended up being a goal.
“But we didn’t defend as well as we had been doing and as a defender I have to hold my hand up and say it wasn’t good enough. The disappointment was that by the end of the first half we were pushing a bit and, I thought, were looking the better team. But in the second half we just couldn’t get going again.”
A further disappointment for Fenlon and his players was the fact they carried very little threat up-front, Paul Heffernan blasting wide when presented with Hibs’ only glimpse of goal in the opening 45 minutes before Liam Craig blazed over from a good position leaving a wayward David Raven header the only real danger for Caley goalkeeper Dean Brill.
The defeat left Hibs’ season finely balanced so far, three wins countered by three losses and two draws, leaving next week’s match against Partick an important fixture for Hibs ahead of the latest international break. Stevenson, who found himself playing right back again after Alan Maybury picked up a knock in the midweek Scottish Communities’ League Cup win over Stranraer, said: “We need another win and a performance.
“Partick have been doing all right. They got a draw away to St Johnstone at the weekend and, from what I have heard, did well against Dundee United in the cup although they were beaten 4-1.
“They have a number of good players so it is going to be another tough game but, as far as we are concerned, it’s a case of working hard in training this week on what we need to do better and hopefully that will bring the result we want on Monday.”