In a career now in its 17th season encompassing more than 400 first-team appearances there’s probably little, if anything, that would surprise Alan Maybury.
But even he admitted he was as bewildered and bemused as anyone in seeking answers to what Terry Butcher described as a “wretched” 45 minutes against St Mirren, a dismal first half display which the Hibs boss firmly believed to be a thing of the past given the Easter Road outfit’s recent renaissance.
Boos and jeers from the Easter Road stands had, instead, been replaced by cheers as the Capital side slowly but surely hauled themselves up the Scottish Premiership table, prompting hope of a top six finish for the first time in four seasons. Such a target does, of course, remain very alive and, despite just one point having been taken from the last three matches, is one which is achievable.
Butcher’s players, however, have been left in no doubt by their manager as to his anger at the “absolutely abysmal, shambolic and awful” performance which saw them three goals down in less than 30 minutes – one which belied the undoubted progress Hibs have made under the new management team of the big Englishman and his assistant Maurice Malpas.
“Sheer hard work” was the cure dispensed by Butcher as he cancelled the players’ day off with a visit from champions Celtic looming, the manager promising to work on both the defensive and offensive sides of the game.
But while Butcher professed to being “baffled” at what he had seen, 35-year-old Maybury revealed he, too, was simply at a loss to explain other than observing: “I think it was just one of those days that can happen to any team, any time. It’s just inexplicable.”
Saints’ freakish opening goal, Paul McGowan’s low shot smacking off Ben Williams’ right-hand post only to cannon into the goalkeeper’s back and over the line, as disappointing as it was from Hibs’ perspective, didn’t give a hint of what was about to happen.
“I thought we’d started the game quite well,” claimed Maybury. “We were on top and then they get a goal out of nothing.
“We regrouped, were going forward trying to do what the manager was asking of us, trying to get a goal back. Then we go from crossing a ball in from the right to their goalkeeper catching it and three passes later it’s in the back of our net again.
“That’s disappointing and unacceptable. But probably the biggest thing was that we conceded another straight away.”
Half-time came as a blessed relief for Hibs, but not before a speculative McGowan effort had come back off the crossbar, allowing Butcher a rethink and to offer his players a few well-chosen words, the exact nature of which Maybury declined to divulge other than to say: “No-one had come in laughing and joking, we all knew it wasn’t good enough and what needed to be done in the second half.”
Restoring a bit of battered pride was probably as much as Maybury and his team-mates could have wished for and a double from James Collins did that, while referee Willie Collum appeared to be the only person within Easter Road who didn’t spot Saints’ midfielder Adam Campbell use his left hand to flick the ball away from Alex Harris inside his own penalty area with barely seconds left on the clock.
A point would have been warmly welcomed in the circumstances but, as Butcher observed, one which would have been stolen.
Maybury conceded that even Collins’ goals had masked the awfulness of that devastating first half, the former Republic of Ireland defender adamant that even the need to reshuffle an already rejigged back four couldn’t be offered as an excuse – Paul Hanlon missing out through injury with Ryan McGivern limping off with a hamstring problem after just eight minutes.
He said: “The fact we’ve been so hard to beat in recent weeks made what happened even more disappointing. I don’t think Ben had a lot of saves to make and he’s probably scratching his head in disbelief.
“There are days when your goalkeeper makes save after save to keep you in it and you end up winning 1-0, but this time they probably had three or four chances and scored three of the them.
“However, you have to be fair to St Mirren – they played well, especially in the first half.
“It was maybe easier for us in the second half. There was no pressure on us, but we reacted the right way. Getting a goal back gave us a bit of belief, gave the crowd something to cheer. Unfortunately, the second goal came just that wee bit too late.
“But we’ll sit down, try to work out where we went wrong, and try to rectify it as quickly as possible.”
While Butcher refused to single out individuals for criticism, adamant the team as a whole should share the blame, the manager did absolve teenagers Alex Harris and Sam Stanton – the young duo replacing McGivern and Paul Cairney respectively as they helped to spark a second half fightback.
And Maybury, who combines his first team duties with the role of a development coach at the club’s East Mains training centre, agreed wholeheartedly. He said: “No matter how bad things are and how disappointed we all were, there were positives to be taken. Alex did so well for us last season and his injury was a real setback for him, but it’s great to see him back, while Sam also gives us something a little bit different.
“I think we are still trying to pin down a position for him, but he’s comfortable on the ball, he gets forward, and is a really good player. He needs a number of games and hopefully he can get himself into the side.”