The honeymoon is over. That first flush of success as Hibs and Terry Butcher tied the knot has gone, replaced by the realisation that this is a relationship which still needs worked on.
Butcher’s arrival at Easter Road brought with it the hoped for upswing in fortunes, his first nine matches marred only by a single-goal defeat at Celtic Park but promising better things to come.
Unfortunately, it seems, that early success served only to paper over the cracks, the troubles which have afflicted the Capital club over recent seasons running too deep to be repaired in the space of only a few weeks.
Four defeats on the spin has seen the feelgood factor, fed by Butcher’s positive and gregarious character, all but evaporate. To be fair to the Hibs boss, he’s made no secret of the fact that it would take time to turn things around, the January arrivals of Danny Haynes, Duncan Watmore and Daniel Boateng no more than a stop-gap measure until Butcher can get the major overhaul so evidently needed underway.
Another good Scottish Cup run following two successive finals would, in the meantime, have provided one and all with an appealing distraction, the fifth-round draw having presented Hibs with all they wanted, a home tie against a team from a lower league. And with five Scottish Premiership sides having tumbled in the previous round and at least two more to exit at this stage, what harm was there in dreaming of perhaps even another appearance in the end-of-season showpiece?
Hibs fans, though, should know better. They’ll have lost count through all the years of such dreams turning into nightmares – in fact they need only look back to last October and Hearts in the League Cup, a defeat which helped hasten the end of Butcher’s predecessor Pat Fenlon. Rarely has the mantle of favourites sat comfortably on the shoulders of those wearing green-and-white shirts but surely they’d have little trouble in disposing of a team which pitched up in Edinburgh having not scored a single goal this year, Grant Murray’s players enmeshed in a dreadful run of their own and one which is threatening to blow their hopes of forcing their way into the Championship play-off.?
It is, however, in such scenarios Hibs appear to be at their most vulnerable, and on this occasion Butcher’s players appeared gripped by a distinct nervousness, unable to impose any authority on the match until the final ten minutes as they chased in vain for the goal which, at least, would give them a second bite at a quarter-final place via a replay at Stark’s Park.
But even that vestige of respectability eluded them, the Kirkcaldy club well worth their victory as they left Hibs looking distinctly second best for much of the 90 minutes. Twice they led, through Kevin Moon and Dougie Hill, only to be pegged back by goals from Sam Stanton and Michael Nelson, the feeling among the home support being that Butcher’s players would then kick on and snuff out any further hint of an upset.
However, if Hibs lacked belief, Raith had it in barrow loads, Grant Anderson arching his neck to send a header looping over goalkeeper Ben Williams, the tenth goal lost in just three games by a team which looked almost impregnable only a few weeks ago. Raith, though, had threatened virtually every time they got the ball into their opponents’ penalty area, Williams left helpless on each occasion while the goalkeeper superbly finger-tipped a Ross Callachan shot onto the post and then blocked a close-range effort from Moon as Hibs were left rocking. Going forward the pace and directness of Watmore caused panic in the Raith ranks time and again, the youngster brought crashing to the turf on numerous occasions as Rovers sought to stop him.
Otherwise Hibs sadly lacked composure, displaying an inability to retain possession long enough to build any great pressure on the Raith defence and a tendency to make the wrong decision when in and around the opposition penalty area.
Nevertheless, they did manage, more through sheer will power than any craft and guile, to create a string of late chances only to find Ross Laidlaw, who had somehow got a leg to James Collins’ second-minute effort as he deflected Liam Craig’s shot goalwards, on top of his game, the Raith goalkeeper beating away an effort from the Hibs captain and dropping to take efforts from Danny Haynes and Paul Heffernan and, in the every last seconds, a Jordon Forster header.
Amid all that Nelson saw a header smack off the crossbar although Raith would point to the break which saw Gordon Smith beat Williams to a through ball only for Paul Hanlon to get back and take the ball off his own line.
Afterwards Butcher’s usually sunny disposition had been replaced by a grim visage, the Hibs boss admitting that for all the little steps forward his side had been taking this represented a huge step backwards.
Butcher, who had warned his players to expect a derby-like match given Raith boasted eight players and members of staff with Hearts connections, said: “There are a few words to describe that but I can’t repeat them. The defeat was bitterly disappointing, but we didn’t deserve anything. Fair play to Raith Rovers, they rubbished us at the back and stopped us from gaining any momentum.
“I can’t believe we have turned in a performance like that when we’d worked so hard during the week to win the game. It’s unbelievable. We played well against Celtic two weeks ago and with only two changes in the team I was expecting more of the same. But Raith stopped us from playing, we couldn’t break them down and now we are out.
“We showed a bit of character to come back twice but in the second half they seemed to get a grip, especially in midfield, and we just could not get going. We conceded three disastrous goals and there is a lot of work to do.
“We have let the fans down big time.”
If Rovers haven’t had their troubles to seek of late, Murray revealed he’d been reminding his players of the 15-match unbeaten run they’d embarked on earlier in the season. Describing the result as one of the best in his career, the former Tynecastle star said: “I’m delighted and the players have to take all the credit. To come here and score three goals against a decent Hibs side is magnificent. We had the belief, we were not here to make up the numbers.”