Hibs manager Terry Butcher’s return to Inverness ended in a low-key goalless draw, but the result, coupled with St Johnstone’s surprise 1-0 win at Dundee United, was a vital twist in the race for the top six as Hibs’ hopes of reaching the upper tier of the SPFL Premiership all but died.
Easter Road boss Butcher had already admitted time was beginning to run out for his side in the wake of Saturday’s draw with Motherwell, but after last night’s action, Hibs are still in seventh place, but now lie four points adrift of the sixth-placed Perth club. The two clubs meet at McDiarmid Park a week on Saturday, but the odds are against the Hibees. They have four games left to play before the split, while Saints have a game in hand with five remaining. Tommy Wright’s side also have a superior goal difference and, on paper, an easier run-in.
Butcher will say otherwise, but it seems too tough a hurdle for the Capital club to overcome, although the Hibs boss will undoubtedly drive his players on hoping that Saints slip up – and badly – before the split.
Even though Butcher would have been happy to see his side record their first clean sheet since the end of December, it was again that lack of firepower – just 28 goals scored in 29 league matches this season – which was all too evident and costly yet again.
Apart from an early shot from Ryan McGivern which Caley goalkeeper Dean Brill finger-tipped over the bar, that was as much of a goal threat as Hibs were to offer. Inverness themselves weren’t much cop up either in a largely forgettable match, with Hibs No.1 Ben Williams forced into just one stop, a close-range effort from Aaron Doran.
“Brutal” was Butcher’s assessment of what he had seen, adding: “It was a poor game. Defensively it was good, a clean sheet, but from an offensive point-of-view, dear, dear. Terrible.”
The top-six battle wasn’t the only sub-plot to this match. It pitched up the past against the present, with Inverness boss John Hughes, the last manager to secure a top six finish for the Easter Road club in season 2009/10, up against the current supremo Butcher, who was making his first trip back to Inverness since he left for Hibs in November last year.
Butcher and his predecessor went into this match in entirely different circumstances, the current incumbent at Easter Road’s sole focus being on taking the three points, while his counterpart had Sunday’s League Cup final with Aberdeen to take into consideration.
Having vented his spleen over the fact Caley had to play four days before the biggest game in their history in his pre-match briefings, Hughes then had a change of heart, believing it important his players try to exorcise their 5-0 Scottish Cup mauling by Dundee United last Sunday and a similar thumping by Celtic seven days earlier.
This match did, of course, allow the suspensions picked up by Greg Tansey and Marley Watkins at the weekend to be expunged, while Hughes took the opportunity to rest a couple more players, with Graeme Shinnie and James Vincent placed on the bench.
Butcher handed Duncan Watmore a surprise start following a foot injury as club skipper Liam Craig and Lewis Stevenson dropped to the bench to make way for on-loan Sunderland kid and Tom Taiwo, who returned following a one-match ban.
Having found themselves on the back foot on too many occasions in recent matches, Hibs were anxious to seize the initiative and they almost did so when McGivern fired in a superb shot, only to see Brill tip the ball over for a corner.
Irish winger Aaron Doran immediately hit back for Caley with a curling shot beyond Ben Williams’ far post, but while the opening 30 minutes were competitive, those were the only moments to bring excitement to the crowd of 2537.
A freezing wind whipping in off the Moray Firth didn’t help the occasion, nor did a bumpy, fiery pitch, the ball spending more time in the air as it was thumped back and forth than on the ground. Referee Stephen Finnie’s insistence on blowing for every infringement, no matter how minor, didn’t make for free-flowing football either.
As was seen against Motherwell, Hibs greatest threat has proved to be set-pieces and a Paul Cairney corner gave Paul Hanlon a half-chance, the defender throwing himself at the ball only to see it crash off Josh Meekings.
If Caley had been defensively suspect against United, they were more robust on this occasion, dealing well with Hibs’ direct style. Butcher’s men really needed to get in behind the opposition back four rather than have them facing the play.
A superb reverse pass from Cairney almost did the trick, releasing McGivern, who saw his driven low cross intercepted by Danny Devine before Danny Williams tracked back well to halt Watmore on the one occasion he found a bit of space to put his blistering pace to use.
The 19-year-old switched flanks, moving from right to left, and it almost paid off immediately. He buried his way into the Caley penalty area before squaring the ball for James Collins, but full-back Carl Tremarco was on hand to put in a vital interception.
Hibs, though, had to be careful not to concede and there was a word of warning as Doran fired a wonderful crossfield ball over the head of Michael Nelson for Billy McKay, but, for once, the Northern Ireland striker couldn’t get his shot on target before goalkeeper Ben Williams pulled off a brilliant point-blank stop from Doran.
Caley skipper Richie Foran would have breathed a sigh of relief when referee Finnie contented himself with a yellow card rather than the red which would have put him out of the final for a foul on Sam Stanton, the common consensus being that his challenge was every bit as bad as those which had earned his team-mates their early baths at the weekend.
Time, however, wasn’t on Hibs’ side as the minutes ticked away without any sign of the goal which would help keep their dream of the top six alive. Butcher’s players probably weren’t aware of Stevie May’s goal for Saints at Tannadice, but the small clutch of fans who’d made the long journey from Edinburgh clearly were, knowing that once again the journey back down the A9 was going to be a long one. It would have no doubt been spent contemplating what appears to be a rather meaningless end to yet another season of disappointment.