Terry Butcher’s Hibs reap rewards of basics

Tom Taiwo slides home Hibs' second goal. Pic: Greg Macvean
Tom Taiwo slides home Hibs' second goal. Pic: Greg Macvean
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There had been a lot of hot air billowing around Easter Road for the previous seven days in the wake of that Scottish Cup humbling by Raith Rovers, Terry Butcher letting off steam, players texting each other throughout the night exchanging opinions on what had gone wrong, followed by the weekly team meeting in which everyone had their tuppence worth.

Fans, too, had plenty to say, Butcher revealing that he’d spent time replying to a clutch of angry letters. Plenty of talk then, but, as Butcher had declared, the only way to answer the criticism was by winning. So to that end this victory was as important as it was welcome, the three points ending a run of five winless matches, the last four of which had been lost.

However, as far as Butcher is concerned, it’s a case of one down, eight to go, the Hibs boss having likened each of his side’s nine games before the “split” as cup finals.

They are, of course, nothing of the sort, no trophy or open-top bus ride along Princes Street to accompany a win, but everyone got his meaning; only a concerted push between now and the visit of high-flying Aberdeen on April 5 will give Hibs any hope of making the top six, something that has eluded the Easter Road side for the past three seasons.

It’s a goal which was looking, with each passing week, as one which would again escape Hibs’ grasp, that early promise following Butcher’s arrival having appeared to have evaporated, some fans glancing rather nervously at the play-off spot rather than, like their manager, having their eyes firmly fixed forward.

In such circumstances, it’s not unusual to hear managers and players alike speak of “getting back to basics”, adamant that if they do so then the rest should, to some extent, take care of itself. A simple approach, but one which, Butcher insisted, lay at the heart of this, a third successive triumph over Ross County – a team which had proved over the years to be something of a nemesis as far as Hibs were concerned.

And, he revealed, it was a point hammered home by veteran defender Michael Nelson, dubbed “Admiral” by Butcher for the part he had played leading up to this match – and on the day itself as he pulled on the captain’s armband in place of the suspended Liam Craig.

The Hibs boss said: “Michael showed great leadership, saying, ‘Lads, we have all got to get back to basics, draw together and get back to what we were a few games ago, that being resolute, hard to beat and grinding out results and wins’.

“That’s exactly what we did. I thought we showed a great ­appetite for the game.”

It was, perhaps, no coincidence that Butcher had his first choice back four at his disposal for the first time in a month, Ryan McGivern having overcome the hamstring problem which had troubled him to take over at left back, releasing Lewis Stevenson into midfield where he looks far more ­comfortable.

The little utility man helped form a midfield which had a distinctly unfamiliar look to it with the usual central pairing of Craig and Scott Robertson, out for at least five weeks with medial ligament damage, missing, while the loss of winger Duncan Watmore to a foot injury following his impressive debut against Raith was a further blow.

Consequently, Sam Stanton stepped back to patrol the middle of the park alongside Tom Taiwo, who is enjoying a new lease of life having found himself cast into the wilderness, the pair coming up with the goals which secured the points.

A different role it might have been for Stanton – although Butcher sees the 19-year-old eventually filling that position for years to come – but yet again the youngster produced a man-of-the-match performance along with a sublime free-kick, curling the ball beyond County goalkeeper Mark Brown from 25 yards to open the scoring.

Stanton, naturally, was delighted to see this goal count for something, although he admitted: “It was a bit of a surprise because it had not really been decided who would take the free kicks. But I said to Ryan I fancied it and it was great to see it go in. We are in the race for the top six. That’s where the club want to be, so it was a crucial win after four or five games without one.”

Two goals in two matches would suggest that Stanton’s name will feature regularly in the coming months and years among Hibs’ goal-scorers. Taiwo’s perhaps rather less so, but, that said, his presence in the County penalty area proved crucial, the former Leeds, Chelsea and Carlisle star showing great composure when Danny Haynes’ cutback fell behind Danny Handling to take a touch and tuck the ball away when the temptation for someone who doesn’t find himself in such situations too often would have been to slash at it first time.

“I couldn’t believe it was him in the box,” revealed Butcher. “Our two central midfielders have scored two goals. That’s very encouraging.”

While the Staggies had hit the bar through a Jordan Slew header, Hibs were well worth their two-goal lead, the attitude and application spot-on from the first whistle, epitomised by the way McGivern harried and hounded Richie Brittain back 30 yards into his own half, the County skipper finally forced to concede a throw-in to avert greater danger.

It was a cameo replicated all over the pitch, the drive and energy of Stanton matched by Stevenson on the left flank, while Danny Haynes caused the visiting defence no end of problems. The on-loan Notts County striker was unlucky to see a low shot from a tight angle squeeze through the legs of goalkeeper Mark Brown but squirm to safety, while, at the back, Nelson and Paul Hanlon more than matched County hitmen Slew and Yoann Arquin.

A Brittain free-kick, as spectacular as Stanton’s had been earlier in the match, threw County a lifeline and ensured a nervy finale as far as Hibs were concerned. Erik Cikos passed up the chance to salvage what had looked a most unlikely point for Derek Adams’ side deep into added-on time when he hooked the ball over from only six yards out.

That led former Easter Road No. 2 Adams to declare: “Hibs didn’t have to work for anything – we lost two soft goals. We worked their goalkeeper a number of times in the first half, we hit the bar and at no time did I think Hibs were going to trouble us. But we have to win against teams like Hibs away from home because, obviously, of the struggles they are going through.

“It’s disappointing we did not capitalise on our chances. In the second half Hibs only had a couple of attacks, a couple of crosses, but I was not really worried because I thought we were in control. I did not really see Hibs scoring.”

Butcher, recalling a Jordon Forster header which Brown clawed on to his post before the ball was scrambled to safety, a Handling opening when he should have scored and another scintillating run from Stanton which took him away from four opponents only for his final shot to be knocked off target, begged to differ.

“I thought we dominated,” he said. “We had great chances to have scored more, so I wouldn’t agree with that at all. I thought we were by far the better team and we deserved all three points.”