The chants from the Aberdeen fans congregated in the lower tier of the South Stand of “you’re going down with the Jambos” were hard to take for the majority of those inside Easter Road last night.
But, by the end of another 90 minutes where the men in green-and-white failed to pick up any points and extend a run that now stretches to just one league win in 13, those who had made the journey from the Granite City might just not be that far off with their taunts.
How Hibs have allowed themselves to become embroiled in such a position at this late stage in the season becomes more evident by the week, their inability to convert anything of note in and around the opposition’s penalty box a glaring deficiency among Terry Butcher’s ranks.
Hibs’ last goal came in the 3-1 defeat by Partick Thistle more than three weeks ago, Duncan Watmore’s strike the mark of an alarmingly low tally which now sits at just one from their last five league outings.
“We need to score goals to win games and we aren’t doing that,” Butcher said in the aftermath of the club’s third defeat by Aberdeen this season. “We’ve done well up to the final third, but seem to have erected a glass wall and we can’t get through it, round it or over it.”
Butcher’s pre-match plans were torn up in the warm-up as striker Paul Heffernan, who had been named in the first XI for a rare start, suffered a groin injury and James Collins, who had not scored in nine games before last night and had been dropped to the bench following a poor derby performance, was called upon to stand in.
“Anything that can go wrong is just going wrong at the moment,” said the Hibs boss. “We started the first half really well though and they scored against the run of play with a fantastic strike and then we’ve started the second half well and they’ve scored another goal with a great strike. We certainly worked hard but we were playing against a confident team and a team that knows how to play.”
There were three changes from the loss to Hearts eight days ago, Alex Harris, Paul Cairney and captain Liam Craig all restored to the starting XI at the expense of Watmore, Danny Handling and the suspended Alan Maybury.
There were signs of the visitors’ intent in the early stages as Adam Rooney, Butcher’s former talisman during his tenure at Inverness, outmuscled defenders Michael Nelson and Jordan Forster to cut the ball across the face of the Hibs goal, with Lewis Stevenson reacting the quickest to boot it clear.
But the home side also showed an eagerness to move the ball forward with pace, Harris in particular taking up some useful positions in the Aberdeen half.
However, just as it looked as if Hibs were beginning to find the upper hand, the sucker punch arrived in the form of a quite magnificent strike from Niall McGinn.
Ryan Jack nipped in just ahead of Tom Taiwo to head the ball into the path of the Northern Irishman and the player had time to shape himself for a shot from 25 yards which he duly fired home as the ball sailed across the despairing dive of goalkeeper Ben Williams and into the far right corner of the net.
Aberdeen grew in confidence and rediscovered their composure to push the Hibs rearguard further back as they went in search of a second goal but Hibs, from the wide areas in particular, still offered a threat in the opposition half, but too often failed to test goalkeeper Jamie Langfield when in a position to do so.
McGinn tried his luck again, this time with his right foot after easily dispossessing Forster but he shot wide of Williams’ right-hand post before the upright came to the rescue as the Aberdeen goalscorer was allowed to cut in from the right and his resulting shot from 16 yards came back off the base of the left frame of goal.
Sixty seconds later and 40 minutes in, Hibs registered their first effort on goal when Taiwo’s effort from distance drifted aimlessly wide of the target.
The visitors then hit the post for a second time in a matter of minutes when Craig’s intended pass for Forster was easily read by Barry Robson and the former Celtic winger showed great awareness to pick out an unmarked Rooney in the penalty area. However, the striker’s first-time effort shaved another bit off the Hibs goal frame.
Hibs, similarly to the opening 45, came out the blocks fast after the interval but were shown up in the final third with some poor decision making. There were, however, shouts for a penalty when Russell Anderson was clumsy in trying to dispossess Collins who had his back to goal, but referee Bobby Madden adjudged there to be no infringement from the Aberdeen captain.
McGinn then provided a rather uncomfortable closing half-hour for the home support when he collected a pass from Rooney inside the penalty area and had ample time to steady himself before shooting off the underside of the crossbar and in to kill off any hopes of a Hibs comeback – the Dons supporters providing a parting gift to the decreasing home contingent by rejoicing in what has now become a real dogfight for the Leith club in avoiding the relegation play-off spot.
Victory puts some breathing space between second-placed Aberdeen and Motherwell, who are three points adrift, in the chase for the league’s runners-up berth.
“I was really pleased with our approach from start to finish,” Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes said.
“We felt we needed to make sure we put the Hibs players under pressure when they had possession of the ball and really test their bravery and I thought we did that.
“I don’t think Hibs ever put us under any real pressure and I think that was down to the work-rate of the players. I thought the two goals we scored from Niall were good enough to win any game.”