Tom Soares hadn’t scored for nigh on two years, Roy O’Donovan not since last August.
But the on-loan pair couldn’t have chosen a better time to end their goals drought, their strikes earning Hibs a victory which was as well deserved as needed in the Easter Road club’s desperate fight to beat the drop.
The win, combined with relegation rivals Dunfermline’s defeat at McDiarmid Park, eases Pat Fenlon’s side three points ahead of the Pars with a game in hand. Not enough for everyone to start breathing easy but, at last, a glimmer of hope for the Capital outfit.
Three goals at Fir Park in midweek hadn’t been enough to secure a single point against Motherwell but this time round three more were enough to see off Kilmarnock. And if you wanted to be “picky,” you could argue the margin of victory could, and probably should, have been even greater.
Hibs, though, were just happy to head for home having claimed only their fifth SPL win of the season – astonishingly four of them having come “on the road”.
The travelling support was understandably small, given as just 541, Hibs fans having seen their side ship nine goals in four days to Celtic and Motherwell and knowing Rugby Park hasn’t been the kindest of venues in recent years. Just think back to last August and that 4-1 hammering in Ayrshire for instance.
But for those who could be bothered it was an afternoon with which they’ll no doubt regale the “stay-at-homes.” For once Hibs got just about everything spot on, resolute and resilient at the back, dominant in midfield and carrying a threat virtually every time they went forward.
The upshot was a result which even Killie boss Kenny Shiels, who appears to have found something to grumble about following every match recently, admitted he couldn’t complain about, conceding: “Hibs did all the good things and thoroughly deserved their victory.”
About the only thing Shiels did take umbrage with was the suggestion that his side might have suffered an even heavier defeat, Kilmarnock goalkeeper Cammy Bell twice denying Leigh Griffiths in one-on-one situations, while George Francomb’s free-kick clipped the top of the crossbar, all three incidents coming in the first half.
By the interval Hibs could easily have had the match wrapped up but, instead, headed up the tunnel with only Soares’ 17th minute strike to their name, the midfielder taking Griffiths’ ball on his chest before dispatching a low shot across Bell and into the far corner of the net.
And as they sat in the dressing-room the fact they’d lost goals immediately after the restart against both Celtic and Motherwell no doubt preyed heavily on their minds. However, their performance on reappearing consigned such worries to the bin, O’Donovan wheeling and thumping a loose ball over the head of Bell after both he and Killie defender Michael Nelson had somewhat lost their bearings having challenged in the air for Jorge Claros’ hoisted ball forward.
It was the Irish star’s first since claiming a consolation goal for Coventry City in a 3-1 Carling Cup defeat at Bury in August and, of course, his first since arriving at Easter Road on transfer deadline day.
Soares was the first to admit he hasn’t been renowned for finding the net but, having done so for the first time since netting in a 1-1 draw for Sheffield Wednesday against Queens Park Rangers in 2010, the former England Under-21 star was soon celebrating his second. And like his opener, his finish was far from that of someone who gets a goal now and again, the Stoke City player bringing the ball down and rifling it past Bell.
Soares, returning to action after a hamstring problem, said: “I was very pleased with my two goals, I don’t do it a lot but it is something I have to bring into my game and I’m hoping to keep doing it.
“I’d been out for a few weeks so it was great to be back with such a result while the performance from the boys was brilliant. We’d had the feeling that sort of display had been on the cards for some time. It hadn’t been happening for us recently, but it was always going to happen.
“We definitely could have had a few more goals. Griff [Griffiths] had a few chances although it just wasn’t his day but it was good to get a few. We’ve been 1-0 up a few times at half-time and gone back out to lose a goal so it was important we got a second quite early and then a third.
“We’d spoken about the fact we’d lost quite a few sloppy goals and made a lot of mistakes. We’d got together and said it had to stop. We dug in, fought and defended brilliantly.”
Possibly the only black mark for Hibs was the concession of a late goal, a slack piece of play inside their own half surrendering possession and resulting in Pa Kujabi bringing down Dean Shiels, the former Hibs ace stepping up to curl the resultant free kick into the top corner of Stack’s net.
No doubt it angered skipper James McPake who, as in the William Hill Scottish Cup win over the same opponents at the beginning of the month, turned in an imperious performance in the centre of defence, attacking – and winning – virtually everything in the air, allowing Paul Hanlon to drop off and mop up anything which got past him.
As in the first half in Lanarkshire, it was no-nonsense, safety-first stuff at times, but highly effective.
In front of that resolute back four the midfield looked balanced, Soares catching the eye with his clever movement on the left with the rangy Isaiah Osbourne patrolling the opposite flank.
Between them Claros and Lewis Stevenson were terrier-like, closing down space and preventing Killie getting their fluid passing game going, the little Honduran putting in a power of work doing the “dirty” side of the game but also displaying the composure, vision and ability to deliver telling passes as witnessed by his 40-yard ball which set Griffiths free for the second of the chances which he was to spurn, both of them similar to the one which went abegging against Motherwell.
But while he missed out in front of goal Griffiths, along with O’Donovan, gave Killie’s defence a hard time of it, their non-stop running preventing them from getting their heads up to play passes in to midfield.
As pleasing as it was, though, Fenlon will be aware that much still remains to be done before Hibs can declare themselves totally safe, a fact upon which Soares reflected as he revealed that none of the players were aware during the game that Dunfermline had fallen behind to St Johnstone.
He said: “Of course we are looking to pick up as many points as we can. There are still quite a few games to go, it will be hard but we have to concentrate on ourselves. We didn’t want any information about Dunfermline out there on the pitch, we wanted to focus on what we were doing.
“There’s a wee gap between us and hopefully we can open it up a bit more.”