Hibs’ SPL future is now on a knife-edge after a second successive defeat for Pat Fenlon’s team left the Easter Road club just three points clear of basement outfit Dunfermline in the battle to beat the drop.
Fenlon’s players had gone into the five post-split matches with a seemingly comfortable seven-point cushion over the Pars but that has started to evaporate thanks to Dean Shiels’ goal for Kilmarnock and, now, Kenny McLean’s winner for St Mirren.
They may still be in the driving seat with only three games remaining, but given Hibs have managed just three wins out of 27 at this stage of the season over the past few years, even the most die-hard Easter Road fan will be deeply worried at what the next couple of weeks may hold.
Forget the first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final in more than a century, the most important game Fenlon’s players appear to have remaining is the visit of Dunfermline a week tonight. Both clubs, of course, have another fixture to fulfil before then, Hibs travelling to Aberdeen on Wednesday night while Dunfermline make the longer trip to Inverness. All sort of permutations may arise from the outcome of those two games but the best Hibs can hope for is to see Dunfermline pitch up at Easter Road six points adrift. However, whatever way you look at it, the clash will still be pivotal in deciding which of the clubs will be playing First Division football next season.
Hibs had gone into this match without top scorer Garry O’Connor, the striker having fallen victim to illness over the previous couple of days, presenting Fenlon’s first signing Eoin Doyle a rare start.
Unfortunately for him he passed up a glorious opportunity to open the scoring in the first half and then saw Saints goalkeeper Craig Samson pull off a tremendous save early in the second. And that stop proved crucial, Saints claiming the only goal of the game through midfielder Kenny McLean before both sides were reduced to ten men, Hibs’ Lewis Stevenson following Marc McAusland up the tunnel as they each received a second yellow card, two sendings off which neither Hibs boss Pat Fenlon or Saints manager Danny Lennon felt were warranted.
Despite the disappointment of losing again, Fenlon insisted his players have what it takes to stay in the top flight, but having played Dunfermline and his old club back-to-back, Lennon admitted he feels things may just be swinging the Fife club’s way.
He said: “It’s going to be tight, Hibs will be delighted they have those three points breathing space. They still have each other to play, and that will be a cracker. It has the makings of a classic and if you are not a Dunfermline or Hibs fan it will be very exciting for Scottish football.
“These past two weeks Dunfermline have certainly had the ascendancy, four points out of six. Both teams will be full of commitment and passion but I think it is too close to call at the moment.”
Fenlon, though, retains full confidence in his players, saying: “If we continue to have the belief and work-rate we got out of the players in this match then I believe we will be okay. I feel we have played well the last two weeks without getting a break and if we play as well as we did today we are capable of winning our remaining matches.”
However, as against Killie, Hibs were undone by what was virtually Saints’ only shot on target, McLean clipping the ball in off goalkeeper Mark Brown’s left hand post just minutes after his own No. 1 Craig Samson had pulled off a tremendous save to prevent Doyle putting Hibs ahead. Griffiths had, of course, claimed his first goals in a green-and-white shirt at this very ground back in October in what has proved to be a rare victory for the Capital side, and he almost notched another after just nine minutes.
McAusland attempted to shepherd Tom Soares’ head flick out of play but Griffiths refused to give up, hooking his foot round the Saints defender and almost catching goalkeeper Samson by surprise at his near post. Sadly it was a portent of things to come with Hibs enjoying much of the ball without, again, being able to engineer the openings to go with their dominance.
Hibs had settled more quickly than their hosts – although Pa Kujabi had to step in to block Paul McGowan’s effort – and George Francomb failed to get his head over the ball as he met Paul Hanlon’s layback, lashing his shot high over the bar when anything lower had, at least, the chance of catching a deflection.
Steven Thompson should have had the Paisley outfit ahead in the 18th minute when keeper Brown, tempted by Graham Carey’s corner, failed to make contact but perhaps did enough to distract the big striker who nodded wide from a couple of yards out.
Griffiths went close with a vicious shot on the angle before James McPake’s raking clearance from deep inside his own half found Doyle running free. Samson made up the Irish hitman’s mind by rushing from his line and was beaten in the race for the ball. But, with the goal gaping the former Sligo Rovers’ star lofted his shot well wide of target.
As in last week’s match Hibs dominated the first half but were again guilty of choosing the wrong option when making the final pass.
St Mirren, however, were just as guilty of surrendering possession too cheaply, making for a rather scrappy encounter with neither goalkeeper overtroubled although Brown did have to keep a careful watch on Kenny McLean’s low shot as it took a deflection off McPake.
Griffiths, as ever, looked the most likely for Hibs, skinning Lee Mair on the right touchline only to see McAusland slide in to take his low cross off the toes of Doyle. Griffiths, though, tended at times to try too much on his own, taking on a defender too many. And the nature of the game was summed up by Nigel Hasselbaink’s woeful attempt at a cross, firing the ball high behind Brown after earning himself both the space and time to deliver a much more dangerous ball having done wonderfully well to slip the attention of Isaiah Osbourne.
But a dreadful mistake by Mair almost turned an indifferent cross from Kujabi into the game’s opening goal, the defender’s first touch poor as the ball broke off him to Doyle who sidestepped him only to see Samson superbly turn his shot aside. Hibs turned the screw and Matt Doherty should have at least hit the target when presented with a sight of goal by Soares.
But for all they had dominated the opening 20 minutes of the second half, Hibs found themselves behind, their defence too easily carved open. Substitute Dougie Imrie made the initial pass, releasing Jereon Tesselaar who’d have been surprised at the way Francomb sold himself. The Dutchman made the most of that missed challenge, turning the ball inside for McLean who sent in a low shot in off the post.
Hibs were howling for a penalty minutes later when Griffiths went down under the challenge of Imrie but referee Stephen Finnie was unimpressed although Fenlon was adamant it was a spot-kick.
The Edinburgh club, naturally, became increasingly anxious but Saints were determined not to let their lead slip, the match full of niggling incidents which kept Finnie busy, the official producing a second yellow card for McAusland, who had been booked for handball in the first half, to leave the home team a man short for the final 13 minutes. And he did likewise deep into the three minutes he had added on, sending Stevenson packing, a decision which rules the little midfielder out of the trip to Pittodrie.