Victory at St Mirren could mean Hibs avoid the play-off

A win would ease the pressure on Terry Butcher
A win would ease the pressure on Terry Butcher
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Not an earth-shattering result by any means, but the no-scoring draw achieved by Terry Butcher against St Mirren almost six months ago in his first match as manager of Hibs did, at least, carry some early promise.

It did, of course, end a run of four successive defeats for the Easter Road club, a period in which Pat Fenlon had quit, the little Irishman being replaced by the big Englishman in a move which was widely welcomed given the advances Inverness Caledonian Thistle had made under Butcher’s guidance.

The feelgood factor deepened as a first win over Ross County in Dingwall, Danny Handling’s strike clinching a Scottish Cup victory, was followed by a run of nine games in which Hibs lost only once, and that by a single goal at Celtic Park, and which culminated in a derby win against arch-rivals Hearts, a third successive triumph.

At that precise moment it appeared the good times were again on the horizon for a club which had struggled through the three previous seasons even if it had enjoyed back-to-back Scottish Cup finals although, it has to be said, the Capital outfit had emerged from those jousts with Hearts and then Celtic somewhat battered and bruised.

Today, however, Butcher is contemplating a return to Paisley this weekend under entirely different circumstances, his honeymoon period well and truly over and the pressure really on now with Hibs, so recently still fighting for a first top six finish in four seasons, battling to avoid being dragged into that scrap to avoid the newly introduced play-off place.

The Capital side begin that fight four points off the danger spot occupied by Partick Thistle, which some say should be comfortable enough a cushion, but there’s no denying they boast the poorest record of any of combatants, the surrender of a two-goal lead against Dundee United in the last ten minutes at Tannadice sparking a downward spiral which has seen them win just once since that day in early January.

As the post-split fixtures get underway, Hibs go into the final five games of the season having lost their last four and with only three points taken from their last eight matches, which leads to the question of just how many points Butcher and his players feel they need to amass to escape the torture of being forced to go head-to-head with a Championship side in a bid to retain their place in the Scottish Premiership.

Some reckon just one more win would do it for a side sitting seventh with 34 points, but the records show that in six of the last ten seasons a total of 37 would have been insufficient for tenth place, although it was enough to secure such a finish for Hibs three years ago.

The difference in preceding seasons, however, was that there was no play-off place. Once one of those struggling at the foot of the table was consigned to the drop the others could breath more easily although, it has to be said, there were a few close-run things, most notably five years ago when Inverness Caley found themselves relegated by a mere two goals having been locked on 37 points alongside St Mirren, with Falkirk one better off.

Today, though, the threat of having a second team in jeopardy has added a different dimension to the closing stages of the season, the introduction of the play-off place having certainly added the desired spice to what, for some, were to some extent fairly meaningless matches, their top-flight status having already been secured by this juncture.

With the exception of Hearts, their demise having finally been confirmed in the last round of matches before the split despite a storming 4-2 win over Partick at Firhill, the next few weeks are going to be something of a white-knuckle ride with, going by results throughout the season, more than a few twists and turns to come. Supporters of each club will be frantically doing the maths, dissecting each of the upcoming fixtures and attempting to identify where points will be won and lost as they bid to make the case for their particular side being favourites to avoid the heightened anxiety an extended season would bring, while managers and players will content themselves with those familiar mantras of taking it one game at a time and not being distracted by events elsewhere.

As far as Hibs are concerned, there’s plenty to ponder. Three of their remaining matches will take place at Easter Road which, on the face of it, would appear to give them something of an advantage, until you remember they’ve managed just four league wins at Easter Road all season and only two in this calendar year.

The lack of goals has also become a mater of grave disquiet, Hibs the lowest scorers in the top fight with just 29 goals to their name, lacking an experienced and prolific striker such as Kilmarnock’s Kris Boyd (19 goals) and St Mirren’s Stephen Thompson (16). In Hibs’ favour is the fact they’ve conceded the fewest goals of any side in the bottom six, but what was once a healthy goal difference has been badly eroded by a string of games in which three were regularly conceded.

And then there is the conundrum of Hearts, Hibs having what none of their rivals will face, the intensity of a derby.

Almost three weeks ago Butcher’s players made the short journey to Gorgie with the opportunity to apply the “coup de grace,” well aware a win at Tynecastle would condemn Hearts, only to come off decidedly second best, the thousands in green and white who had accompanied their team in fervent hope goaded by chants of “You’re going down with the Jambos” from rivals who’d already accepted their fate.

Gary Locke’s team lived to fight another day, staved off the inevitable yet again with a battling draw against high-flying Aberdeen and looked to have done so yet again in thumping Partick, only for St Mirren to grab two late goals against Motherwell to leave them facing the final five games with nothing at stake other than pride.

There will undoubtedly be plenty of that on show when Locke’s side roll up at Easter Road a week on Sunday but, Hibs fans will be asking, can the young Jambos replicate that passion in each of their other remaining games?

As far as Butcher and his players are concerned, though, it’s entirely in their hands. As they’ve rightly said on a number of occasions recently, Kilmarnock, Ross County, St Mirren and Partick would all gladly swap places with them right at this moment. Only they can bring this slump to a halt and the sooner they do so the better for the nerves of all.

Final points tally of teams to have finished 11th over past ten seasons:

Season 2012-13: (St Mirren) 41 points

Season 2011-12: (Hibs) 33 points

Season 2010-11: (St Mirren) 33 points

Season 2009-10: (St Mirren) 33 points

Season 2008-09: (Kilmarnock) 37 points

Season 2007-08: (St Mirren) 40 points

Season 2006-07: (St Mirren) 36 points

Season 2005-06: (Dunfermline) 33 points

Season 2004-05: (Dunfermline) 34 points

Season 2003-04: (Aberdeen) 34 points