A fortnight ago, the thought of returning from Tannadice a point in hand would have gladdened the hearts of most Hibs fans, Dundee United apparently sweeping all before them having won six successive matches while scoring 22 goals.
The Tannadice outfit have been somewhat off the boil since, the festive period bringing little joy for Jackie McNamara and his players but, nevertheless, the fact Hibs journeyed back to the Capital disappointed with only a draw is a measure of the progress made in a remarkably short time under Terry Butcher.
There is, of course, a strong argument to be made that rather than a single point, Hibs should have had all three having enjoyed a two-goal lead with only eight minutes of regulation time remaining.
To that end, then, it was most certainly a case of two points dropped. And no doubt there will come a time in the future when, should a scenario repeat itself, Butcher won’t be as forgiving as he was on this occasion, the Hibs boss confirming the away dressing-room doors remained firmly on their hinges, despite his disappointment at the final result.
Even so, Butcher admitted he found it very difficult to reproach his players for letting victory slip through their fingers as United substitutes David Goodwillie and Brian Graham struck to cancel out the double from Easter Road skipper Liam Craig, which appeared to have put the game well beyond the reach of the Tayside club.
The exertions of five games since December 21 and, in particular, the physical effort expended along with the mental strain involved in winning the derby only three days earlier – United having enjoyed an additional 24 hours to recover from their New Year’s Day game with Aberdeen – had, Butcher claimed, finally taken their toll.
“I thought we were good for the three points,” admitted Butcher, “For 75 minutes we have done very well. United were not in it at all. The crowd and players were getting frustrated, so we thought ‘this is great for us’.
“But I think the last 15 minutes told on my players in terms of tiredness, as they’d put so much in to the derby, which is a big thing mentally as well as physically. We tried to get over that game as quickly as possible and I thought we’d done just that – but you have to give United full credit, because they had nothing to lose and just bombed it forward.”
As Butcher observed, it was most unlike Hibs – at least since he and Maurice Malpas took over – to concede two goals in a game, this being the first time it had happened, the Edinburgh side having lost just three goals in their previous eight matches under the new management team.
He was, in particular, disappointed his players didn’t deal better with “crosses, high balls and punts up the park”, but insisted lessons will be learned before expressing his delight at having secured 11 points out of 15, a run which has propelled Hibs into to the top six of the Scottish Premiership – although this result robbed them of the opportunity of closing a gap on United which had been 14 points on Christmas Day to a mere two.
Butcher said: “To come here and play so well and not win but get a point which puts us a point further on than St Johnstone – we are now three ahead of them – I’m delighted with that.
“Okay, we didn’t make up ground on United, but I think it gives us great hope to play against a team that has had a very good season and against some top, top players. There was no ranting and raving because the boys have given me absolutely everything they can. There are little things we have to work on but, overall, we came to a top six team and, while perhaps we should have won, we have got a point, which is still progress.”
With just one defeat in their last eight matches – away to champions Celtic – Hibs looked assured of a fourth successive win when Craig, having fired home a first half opener after Paul Heffernan had picked off Mark Wilson’s pass as United attempted to play out from the back, took his tally for the season to nine from the penalty spot after referee Steven McLean ruled John Souttar guilty of pushing James Collins.
“Soft” was McNamara’s assessment. “A penalty as far as I am concerned,” was how Butcher saw it, as you would expect. But regardless, a two-goal cushion looked more than ample until Goodwillie gathered a pass from Graham and wheeled to slide the ball into the net.
And just 30 seconds of regulation time remained when United enjoyed a huge slice of luck, Goodwillie’s shot appearing to be heading wide until Graham thrust out a leg to deflect it beyond Ben Williams.
As deflating as those final minutes were, former United star Scott Robertson echoed Butcher’s upbeat mood saying: “They went direct towards the end, it was an onslaught with them shooting towards their own fans.
“The lads all admitted we were a bit tired. We had a day’s less rest than United and had the emotional side of the derby, so maybe all that contributed.
“We could have won. Liam got another two and he’s on nine now – he’s been great for us. But a draw here is a decent result and things are still very positive about the place.”
Butcher’s infectious enthusiasm has undoubtedly restored morale in a dressing-room which was being sapped in the final weeks of Pat Fenlon’s time in charge but, insisted Robertson, there’s no great secret to the turnaround in fortunes the big Englishman has overseen.
He said: “The manager has made us play in the opposition’s half – it’s not rocket science. Passing around your own part of the pitch is all very well, but it doesn’t take you anywhere.
“So we’ve taken that on board and you can see that in the last few games.”