A run of five out of six matches at home should have helped Hibs cement their place in the top six but, instead, it appears to have been their undoing.
Only the one victory from the visit of lowly Ross County has left their hopes of breaking into the upper half of the Scottish Premiership table hanging by a thread.
Only five games remain before the split, with four of them “on the road,” starting with boss Terry Butcher returning to his old club Inverness Caley on Wednesday night. Butcher will undoubtedly do so hoping a series of games away from Easter Road will bring a change of fortune, the claim that playing at home doesn’t have his players running scared appearing more lame with each passing week.
Rather than turning their own stadium into a fortress, it has become something of a playground for visiting teams. This 3-3 draw with Motherwell was the fifth time in six matches that they’ve managed to concede three goals or more.
Sixteen goals have been shipped in just five games across league and cup, a record which has left Butcher clearly frustrated and angry, especially when it appeared Hibs’ defensive worries seemed to have disappeared with the arrival of the former England captain and centre-half when a mere two were conceded in his first seven matches in charge.
Now, though, visiting teams are almost invited to take advantage of Hibs’ frailties. St Mirren, Celtic, Raith, Dundee United and Motherwell have all been handed the initiative, the Capital side playing with a handicap which all too often has proved too big a hurdle to overcome.
They came close to overcoming a deficit against St Mirren and Raith and even closer on this occasion. Hamstrung by a two-goal deficit, they not only reeled in the Fir Park outfit, but got their noses in front, Paul Heffernan, who has found playing time limited since limping off injured just six minutes into Butcher’s first match, stepping from the bench to crash home their third goal of the game.
It was Heffernan’s first goal since he opened the scoring against Celtic in mid-October, but one which might just have earned Hibs only their third win in ten games. Easter Road fans, though, know from bitter experience that rarely are matters so straight-forward, that there’s always one final, fatal twist to come.
It duly arrived as the game moved into the three minutes of time-added-on by referee Steven McLean. Hibs were caught napping at a throw-in as Ian Vigurs found the space to deliver one of those teasing and tempting low crosses between goalkeeper and defence, the ball pinging about before Motherwell’s John Sutton threw himself at it to head home his second goal of the game.
The Steelmen had raced into a two-goal lead inside 29 minutes. Sutton’s instinct to be in the right place at the right time inside the six-yard box was all too evident as he ghosted in at the back post to meet Lionel Ainsworth’s inch-perfect cross. That strike was followed by the provider claiming a strike for himself, skipping away from Michael Nelson all too easily before curling a wonderful shot beyond Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams.
At that stage, Motherwell manager Stuart McCall admitted he’d have been bitterly disappointed to settle for only a point, the fear among the home fans being that things could get pretty messy as far as they were concerned, with the Lanarkshire side stroking the ball about with an assured confidence as Butcher’s players struggled at times even to find a team-mate in green-and-white.
It was little wonder Hibs looked a tad bedraggled at that point, for they had started the game reasonably well, Butcher admitting he was happy with what he’d seen, other than a goal, up until the point Motherwell got themselves in front. “The natives were very restless when we were 2-0 down and no wonder,” he said,
“For the first ten or 11 minutes we had done really well and yet they’ve scored with their first meaningful attack. We’d done what we wanted to do without scoring and then we were knocked back by a goal then a second pretty quickly. It was character time, bravery time. We were looking at things, saying what can we do to not go three down as Motherwell are well capable of scoring out of nothing.”
Jordon Forster, though, threw Hibs a lifeline, powering home a header for the second match in succession and, incredibly, from having looked down and out, Butcher’s side could have been level before the interval, Motherwell goalkeeper Lee Hollis pulling off a sharp save from James Collins before Forster nodded wide having found himself free inside the visitors’ penalty area again.
And that, according to McCall, was the turning point. “If we had not lost a goal prior to half-time we’d have gone on to control the game, but at 2-1 HIbs had nothing to lose,” he said.
Butcher, too, sensed that was a big moment, revealing: “The last five or ten minutes lifted everyone. We could hear the crowd as we came in and that lifted the players. There was no ranting and raving. It was all quite cool, calm and collected because we felt if we could get a second goal we could get a third and win the game.”
Butcher’s prediction proved almost proved spot-on. If Hibs have found goals somewhat hard to come by all season, set pieces have proved very fruitful and the equaliser came from a Paul Cairney corner, Michael Nelson rising above everyone beyond the back post to send the ball in off the bar, assistant referee Douglas Ross signalling it had crossed the line despite the half-hearted protests from McCall’s men.
And when Cairney laid on Heffernan for a third, those precious three points which would have taken Hibs level with sixth-placed St Johnstone appeared secured – until Sutton’s late, late intervention, one which brought the smile back to McCall’s face while Butcher’s grin dissolved into a scowl.
“It had been a tremendous comeback,” insisted the Hibs boss, “and that has been spoiled by an unbelievably soft goal. It was great play by Vigurs, but we had umpteen chances to clear the ball. It was schoolboy defending – we couldn’t defend a throw-in in the last two minutes of the match. It was a bizarre game and one which, I think, sums up our whole season, Jekyll and Hyde.
“We’ve scored three at home and not won the game. We got it right at one end, but we certainly didn’t get it right at the other. I’m bitterly disappointed.”
It was a sense of frustration shared by McCall, who succinctly summed things up by saying: “I think the feeling is one of relief. After 30 minutes, if you had told me we’d only get a point, I’d have been disappointed.
“But after 85 minutes if you’d said we were going to get a point, I’d have been delighted. It’s tough coming away from home, so a point at Easter Road is not to be sniffed at. All-in-all, it was quietly satisfying.”