Hibs skipper James McPake hit the nail on the head. Last season he and his team-mates would have trudged off mightily relieved not to have lost 3-2, where as today the overwhelming emotion is one of bitter disappointment at having surrendered a two-goal lead at home to Inverness Caley Thistle.
It’s a measure of the remarkable turnaround manager Pat Fenlon has engineered at Easter Road, a total change in the mindset at a club where over the past couple of years failure and under-achievement has become the norm.
All that has changed now, the Irishman crafting a side over the past few months which is virtually unrecognisable to the one which ended last season on such an abject low.
Certainly there is still a long, long way to go until Fenlon is anywhere near satisfied, the Irishman describing his team at the moment as “a work in progress”, but who would have thought that today the topic of conversation would be Hibs passing up the opportunity to go top of the SPL table with the fact this was a sixth league game without defeat all but overlooked.
Six minutes from half-time, hitting top spot looked assured, goals from Eoin Doyle and David Wotherspoon – a stunning 30-yard shot which dipped and curled into the top corner of Inverness goalkeeper Ryan Esson’s net – no less than Hibs deserved as they gave their visitors the runaround with a display which drew appreciative “oles” from their supporters.
Between those goals, Paul Cairney had smacked a shot off Esson’s left-hand post with the goalkeeper beaten, Caley manager Terry Butcher admitting Hibs had “run his side ragged”, their efforts on goal amounting to little more than a couple of long-range shots which Ben Williams comfortably dealt with.
But, as Butcher put it, Caley were thrown a “massive lifeline” as they got a goal out of nothing, Conor Pepper getting the benefit of the doubt from referee Euan Norris as he tangled with left back Alan Maybury, the Hibs star adamant he had been shoved in the back as he went to ground as the Irish kid, who had completed Caley’s stunning fight back against Hearts at Tynecastle earlier in the season, was allowed to run on to fire a shot in off the post.
Butcher conceded: “It could have been a foul.” And McPake put Maybury’s case for the defence saying: “Going by what Alan said, he was pushed in the back. Nine times out of ten you get that decision.”
Williams pulled out a wonder-save to keep Hibs ahead on the stroke of half-time, somehow clawing Gary Warren’s close-range header away. Those 15 minutes spent in the dressing room appeared to have given Hibs the opportunity to regain their composure and, if their second half performance didn’t quite match that of the first, they didn’t look in any great danger.
In fact, McPake himself could have settled things with a third Hibs goal 13 minutes from time, gathering Doyle’s knock down from Wotherspoon’s free-kick before swivelling and shooting powerfully from only a few yards out only to see Esson throw up an arm to deflect the ball over the bar. McPake said: “The goalkeeper has done well, but when you are only that far out you expect to score. I caught it well enough and maybe if I had scuffed it, it might have gone in.”
Esson’s intervention proved crucial, Josh Meekings sweeping a low cross towards the far post where Williams matched his counterpart’s heroics with an astonishing stop from Warren’s shot only for the ball to fall kindly for Caley captain Richie Foran to smash high into the net.
It was a strike which left everyone in green and white both stunned and shocked, not least McPake and his team-mates as the big defender cast a downbeat figure as he headed towards the dressing-room.
He said: “Everyone in there was gutted. It was hard to take, 2-0 up at home and you expect to win and I feel we definitely created enough chances to win, so it’s hard to walk away not having taken all three points.
“To be honest, it feels like a defeat, but maybe last year we would have been walking off the park relieved we hadn’t lost 3-2.”
However, McPake immediately insisted those days had gone, declaring: “This is a new season, there are new standards at this club and we expect ourselves to win all our home games, especially when we go 2-0 up. Perhaps at Celtic Park we didn’t deserve anything, but we nicked a point, and maybe we deserved the three points this time, but only came away with one.
“These things even themselves out over a season.”
While there has most definitely been a distinct change in Hibs, so, too, has the mood among those occupying the Easter Road stands swung, something McPake insisted all Fenlon’s players had detected and appreciated. He said: “The fans have been brilliant. Last week [against Kilmarnock] they got us over the line and this week they were urging us on. It’s difficult for them as well, seeing us 2-0 up and the chance to go top of the eague which is great for them.
“They are with us and to me that’s the most important thing in the turnaround this season. We have managed to get the fans back on our side which was a hard task after the nightmare of last season. They can see how gutted we are as well with a draw at home. They are a bit understanding, they know what we are trying to do.”
So what, exactly, has changed in the captain’s opinion? McPake said: “I think the change in personnel has brought a change in mentality. The manager was criticised over the summer for not bringing in too many players having lost so many.
“But I think he has been good. He has hand-picked players, Gary Deegan for example. Gary is not going to let you be beaten, he is a winner, but he can also play. I think we have a ‘we will not lose mentality’, we roll up our sleeves and win the battle.
“That’s what we needed to do because there’s not a lot in much of the teams up here so you have to go out, win the fight first and foremost and that’s what the manager has instilled and I think that’s what we are doing in the majority of games.”
Disappointing it may have been, but Fenlon insisted he couldn’t be over-critical of his players, saying: “I cannot come in and have a pop at people because they have played quite well and given their all, but we just did not get the little break on the day. You also have to give Inverness credit as well. Coming here and going 2-0 down some other teams would have packed it in, but they have that devilment in them.
“They are an honest bunch of players. They haven’t won many matches, but they haven’t been beaten in too many either.”