Early days, but cautious reason for optimism. After the shakiest of starts Pat Fenlon’s players appear to have quickly found their feet, following up a promising derby day performance with a display of true grit and a fair amount of flair.
Hibs knocked the ball around in style when they could and dug in when they had to, ensuring a win over St Mirren which, along with the point taken from the clash with Hearts, gives Fenlon’s new-look side a solid foundation upon which to start building their season. The transformation from that miserable day at Tannadice when Dundee United strolled to victory has been remarkable but, Fenlon revealed, it was a lesson learned on Tayside which has led to the up-turn in Hibs’ fortunes with the manager happy to put up his hand and accept responsibility for what went wrong.
Certainly the arrival of Gary Deegan in the intervening period has added a greater degree of bite in the middle of the park but abandoning the 4-2-3-1 formation which he had deployed throughout pre-season with Leigh Griffiths operating as a lone striker in favour of a more familiar 4-4-2 has paid dividends with the on-loan Wolves star having scored three times in the two games since.
Asked if he could explain the response he’s had since facing United, Fenlon said: “Maybe I got that wrong, I picked the wrong formation so I have to hold my hand up for that. It’s all right to blame the players at times and I think they have taken a lot of stick over the last few seasons.
“But sometimes as manager you have to take responsibility for that. We’ve changed it around and we look a little bit better at the moment.”
Being partnered with Eoin Doyle has taken some of the burden off Griffiths and if it is he who is grabbing all the headlines with his goals, Fenlon believes his fellow Irishman also has to take some of the credit even if he’s yet to find the back of the net this season.
He said: “Leigh is very nearly always in the mood when he plays, he is a good player, a very good finisher and his work-rate is tremendous. Eoin hasn’t scored a lot of goals but he does a lot of stuff for Leigh, his work-rate and movement are good and he opens up space for Leigh to play in.”
Together Griffiths and Doyle made the Saints defence look hesitant and uncertain throughout the opening 45 minutes, taking only quarter of an hour to take advantage.
Given Griffiths had scored his first two Hibs goals on this very ground, it would have come as little surprise that the opener came from that magical left foot of his.
Taking a glorious crossfield ball from David Wotherspoon, Griffiths was left with only Darren McGregor to beat. The Buddies defender seemed to have done enough to avert danger but the Hibs forward was first to react as the ball came off McGregor’s legs, whipping a low shot across goalkeeper Craig Samson and into the far corner of the net.
Griffiths drove another shot into the side-netting as Tim Clancy clipped a free-kick just over and then sent a glancing header inches wide of target before Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams played his part in ensuring his side went in ahead at the interval.
Referee Craig Charleston’s decision to award a penalty against James McPake as he and Sam Parkin fought for a deflected Dougie Imrie cross looked harsh, but Williams threw himself to his left to push away Paul McGowan’s spot-kick.
Doyle was denied a first goal of the season as Samson matched that save by getting a strong hand to the former Sligo Rovers hitman’s powerful downward header before linking with Griffiths to allow his team-mate to claim his second of the game with another clinical finish.
Hibs looked home and dry with 30 minutes to play but within 120 seconds they were rocking, Steven Thompson left to knock home Imrie’s low cross from close-range, a goal which led to Fenlon’s side being hit by an aerial bombardment as widemen Imrie and substitute Gary Teale sought the heads of Thompson and Parkin.
Griffiths might have had a hat-trick, his free-kick cracking off the bar with Samson flatfooted but Williams was forced into a pointblank stop from Thompson and then McGowan as Hibs desperately held on, Saints boss Danny Lennon insisting: “We got plenty of crosses into the box and could easily have snatched a point at the end.”
It wasn’t as pretty as the patterns Hibs had woven in the first hour or so but it was equally effective, to the delight of Fenlon who admitted his players had been left hanging on.
He said: “I think we showed both sides of what I wanted from the team. We passed it really well and played really well in the first half and we were very resolute in the second.
“We have some very good leaders there, James McPake, Gary Deegan, Alan Maybury, Tim Clancy and Ben Williams, players with the experience we were crying out for. We don’t want to get away from producing good young players and bringing them through, but they need to have guidance on the pitch and I think that’s what they bring to us.”
Fenlon will undoubtedly be looking for more of the same from his latest signing, veteran Finnish striker Shefki Kuqi who played something of a cameo role as he replaced Doyle for the final few minutes having completed his move to Easter Road only 24 hours earlier.
Added Fenlon: “He needs a bit of fitness work but he’s an experienced striker who will help the young lads like Danny Handling and Ross Caldwell while, don’t forget, Leigh and Eoin are still young themselves.”
As pleasing as his side’s performances have been over the past couple of games, Fenlon will no doubt be equally delighted at the mindset of his players having come back so strongly when many rushed to judgment following the hammering at Tannadice and predicted another rough season for the Capital club.
He said: “We probably showed United a bit too much respect, we’ve changed the shape around a little bit but the response from the players has been good.
“When you have had a season like we had, the Cup final, being beaten on the first day and then going behind in the derby, sometimes heads can go down but the players have shown great character.”