Like so much of this season this was a case of ifs, buts and what-might-have-beens for Hibs.
On the face of it, coming back from the loss of an early goal to claim a draw away from home represents a creditable performance from a side still recovering from that debilitating run which saw them fail to win in five matches, culminating in a shock Scottish Cup exit to Raith Rovers.
But rather than a precious point gained in their chase for a top-six finish, boss Terry Butcher and his players regarded their trip to Rugby Park as very much a case of two points lost, their disappointment heightened as they learned St Johnstone, their rivals for sixth place, had lost at home to Inverness Caley.
Victory over Kilmarnock would have propelled Hibs above the Perth club, turning up the heat on Tommy Wright’s side as they prepare to play their game in hand against a Motherwell outfit seeking to prise second spot from the hands of Aberdeen. The point, though, has, at least for the time being, hauled Hibs level with Saints who continue to hold a slight advantage thanks to a superior goal difference.
Saints have the upper hand thanks to the fact they’ve outscored Hibs, 31 goals from their 25 games so far compared to the Easter Road side’s 24 from 26 matches, the Capital club, almost three-quarters of the way through their season, still to find someone who finds the back of the net as regularly as Perth hitman Stevie May.
And it was his players’ inability to work Kilmarnock goalkeeper Craig Samson which took the shine off what Butcher regarded as another promising performance, building on the previous week’s win over Ross County although Hibs lacked that effervesence shown against the Staggies which had brought them two early goals.
“Plenty of crossing, shooting and finishing,” was Butcher’s plan for training at East Mains this week, the Hibs boss adding: “We didn’t test Samson by any means because he hardly had a thing to do in the game.
“The hardest part of the game is to put the ball into the net, to deliver good balls into the box and we didn’t put in near enough crosses and weren’t ruthless enough in the final third.”
As St Johnstone can rely on May, Kilmarnock lean on Kris Boyd although on this occasion the Ayrshire side’s leading goal-scorer turned provider, spotting Rory McKenzie’s run in behind Ryan McGivern before supplying a sumptuous crossfield ball which left the Hibs defender desperately chasing his opponent but losing the race as the Killie forward matched the quality of the pass he’d received by drilling a low shot across goalkeeper Ben Williams and into the far corner of the net.
Once again Hibs found themselves on the back foot, the danger being that a further goal would be quickly conceded, but this time round Butcher’s players, their confidence no doubt buoyed by their display seven days earlier, simply drew breath and got on with it.
Butcher said: “In the past Hibs have not caved in but have certainly wobbled and resorted to a long-ball game. But we did not do that. I thought we passed it well, the midfield two of Sam Stanton and Tom Taiwo, in the second half in particular, were excellent. They won first, second and third balls and gave us the platform to build attack after attack, but we didn’t get the quality of ball in.”
The exception to that was the cross Stanton provided for Danny Haynes early in the second half, it’s accuracy such that the striker barely had to rise off the ground as he met the ball with his head to nod it beyond Samson for his first Hibs goal.
Butcher said: “I thought that once we got the equaliser we’d go on to win the game but it just did not happen for one reason or another. I said at half-time I was confident if we could get one we’d get more and I was still confident even at the last knockings of the game.”
Haynes has added a new dimension to Hibs with his pace and movement and the on-loan Notts County striker almost got a second goal, wheeling to meet Liam Craig’s lob only to see the Kilmarnock skipper pull off a superb close-range block.
If the game had been something of a slow burner, it burst into life in that second half with both sides sensing it was there to be won, Killie hoping to reignite their own hopes of a late dash for the top six, and they were convinced they should have had a penalty when Boyd and Michael Nelson clashed inside the Hibs penalty area.
“It did look as if he had lunged into the back of Kris,” claimed Killie boss Allan Johnston, but referee Craig Thomson, so often seen as the villain of the piece by Hibs fans, was having none of it, waving the protests away.
Johnston confessed to being disappointed not to have won having been at home and having taken the lead but conceded a draw was probably a fair result, adding: “I thought we were the better side in the first half but we didn’t start the second half well. Hibs put us under a lot of pressure and perhaps deservedly got their goal because they were on the front foot.”
Johnston may have been reasonably happy at the final outcome given Hibs’ second-half dominance, but goal-scorer Haynes agreed with Butcher’s assessment that, as far as Hibs were concerned, it was a case of two points dropped.
He said: “Kilmarnock only had one shot while we had a few chances and got a few balls into the box. They were on the back foot constantly for the second half. It’s frustrating but I think we should be happy with our performance. It’s doubly disappointing because we haven’t been able to get in to the top six, but you can’t take away from our performance.
“It was good to get my first goal and hopefully it’s the first of many.”