Dire Hibs fail to lift gloom

The mist engulfs Easter Road Stadium
The mist engulfs Easter Road Stadium
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As the old saying goes, no matter how bleak things may be looking, there’s always someone worse off than yourself.

In the case of Hibs that someone is Dunfermline, the Fife club rooted to the foot of the SPL table with the Easter Road side still ahead, albeit that their advantage has been trimmed every so slightly to just three points.

That cushion may offer a little comfort to supporters of the Capital club in the wake of yet another defeat but in no way removes the harsh reality that Pat Fenlon’s side are in a relegation dog-fight, seven vital matches left if Hibs are to retain their place in the top flight of Scottish football.

Forget all talk of dragging others into the scrap, the battle is, as skipper-for-the-day Lewis Stevenson admitted, between Hibs and Dunfermline with the arrival of former Hearts boss Jim Jefferies at East End Park raising hopes across the Forth that the Pars might yet survive.

It’s going to be tense, nervous, nail-biting stuff between now and the end of the season with no margin for error but, as Pa Kujabi today reminded his team-mates, they shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that as narrow as their lead might be, they still hold the upper-hand.

The little Gambian internationalist said: “I’d rather be three points ahead than three behind at this stage of the season. All of us fighting and staying positive, believing we can stay in this league.

“We want to get out of this situation, we have confidence and we are all working hard but it’s difficult.”

What is also hard to see is Hibs embarking on the sort of run which would ease the nerves of all, Fenlon finding that every time he believes there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel it’s an express train coming at him head-on.

Defeats by Hearts and now Dundee United have ended the latest mini-revival, Fenlon yet to rid his side of their Jekyll and Hyde personna, the moments of promise shown within matches and over slightly longer spells overshadowed by despair. If only Fenlon could get his players to produce on a consistent basis over the entire 90 minutes of a match rather than 45. Non-existent in the first half at Tynecastle, Hibs improved remarkably after the interval but this time round, as Fenlon himself pointed out, it was the reverse, a decent opening period followed by capitulation.

Although they could have gone behind in the first minute, goalkeeper Graham Stack beating away United defender Gavin Gunning’s powerful shot, Hibs almost took the lead when Leigh Griffiths lashed the ball against Dusan Pernis’ crossbar.

Stack fingertipped a Jon Daly header over but with George Francomb and Kujabi raiding down either flank, Hibs had a Tannadice side seeking to extend their unbeaten League run to nine matches stretched on more than one occasion.

However, rather than take that display into the second half, Hibs simply disappeared, Francomb finding fewer opportunities to get forward as United continually fed the menacing Gary Mackay-Steven, the left winger responding with a steady supply of tempting crosses which should have seen Daly open the scoring. Instead he nodded the ball over before Stack produced an instinctive stop to prevent Mackay-Steven netting while a Johnny Russell effort clipped off Paul Hanlon and looped just wide before Mackay-Steven left three Hibs defenders trailing only to see his shot off-target.

Such were the chances United created everyone sensed they couldn’t keep missing and so it proved, Daly holding the ball up before supplying Russell who slipped it through for former Hibs midfielder John Rankin. Again Stack was superb, standing tall before spreading himself to block only to see the ball fall for Russell to tap into the empty net.

And Stack’s heroics counted for little eight minutes later when he somehow let a low angled shot from Mackay-Steven squirm through his hands and into the net at his near post.

Substitutes Garry O’Connor and Ivan Sproule both saw Pernis safely clutch low drives as Hibs sought to get themselves back into the match but, for the third SPL match in succession, Fenlon’s players failed to score and, as in the previous two games, rarely looked like doing so.

However, as Fenlon admitted, Hibs should be well used to the pressure of battling to stave off the threat of the drop, claiming little had changed in the club’s situation since he replaced Colin Calderwood in November, his time in charge having produced just two wins in 16 league matches although, of course, there is still that William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final to look forward to.

The Irishman said: “It’s been a concern since I came here, we have been bottom of the League, second last, third last over a period of time. That’s where the club has been and it’s been a concern since day one for me anyway.”

What will be worrying Fenlon as much as Hibs’ current position is the frailty of his players, the manager acknowledging that they continue to react poorly to losing the first goal, Stevenson conceding when that happens heads appear to drop.

The little midfielder said: “I thought we’d done all right first half, there wasn’t much in the game but in the second half we didn’t really turn up. We can’t afford to let heads go down, I don’t think we mean to but in the situation we are in that happens.

“But we have to be better than that, we have to rise above it and take responsibility.”

As things stand today Hibs’ future remains very much in the hands of Fenlon and his players but, as Stevenson acknowledged, all talk of having a squad good enough to stay up has to be backed by action on matchday.

He said: “We believe we have good enough a squad but it’s easy to say that if we are not performing on a Saturday.

“We have to show we are the better team, we cannot keep saying that. It’s between them [Dunfermline] and us. It’s going to be a massive game when we play them after the split but we have to try to get a bit of daylight between us before then.”

Hibs have matches against Inverness Caley and Motherwell before that point while Dunfermline face Dundee United and then Hearts, fixtures which would suggest that, unless one or other produces a surprise result over the course of the next fortnight, they’ll head into the last five games in the situation they find themselves today.