Hibs reaction: Ugly win is pretty crucial to Easter Road men
With games against Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen hurtling towards them, there was no doubting the significance of this win to Hibs as they bid to keep themselves in the battle for second place in the Premiership.
Yes, it may have been rather unconvincing, an own goal from Partick Thistle’s Adam Barton gifting them the three points, but after taking just one from their previous two games, any sort of victory was always going to be warmly welcomed.
Regardless of the manner of it, the win maintains a nine-month unbeaten record “on the road” for Neil Lennon’s side and keeps them very much in the mix at the top end of the table as the season rapidly approaches the halfway stage.
And although he’s admitted it could have been even better if he were to reflect on points which have slipped through his players’ fingers – most recently against St Johnstone and Hamilton – Lennon insists a club which is just back in the big time following three years of Championship football are very much ahead of schedule.
“With Celtic playing Motherwell and Rangers against Aberdeen it was really important to win this game going into the week we have coming up,” he said.
In a game long on effort but lacking somewhat in a touch of craft or guile from either side, the decisive moment came three minutes into the second half, Lewis Stevenson first to react as Anthony Stokes’ free-kick crashed back off the Jags defensive wall, the little full-back throwing a deep cross towards the back post.
As Thistle goalkeeper Tomas Cerny slipped, the ball skimmed off the head of Barton and spun inside the far post, leaving the former Hibs man to say: “I might have got it if I hadn’t slipped. It went in just inside the post so I might not have got there, but I would have had a chance.
“It was difficult to lose in that fashion, it was a cheap goal.”
It also leaves Partick firmly rooted to the foot of the table and in danger of being cast adrift, Alan Archibald’s side left to reflect what might have been had Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano not pulled off a superb save to deny substitute striker Kris Doolan.
The Israeli internationalist appeared to be heading in the wrong direction as Doolan met Miles Storey’s low cross, but he managed to stick out his left boot to knock the ball to safety – all in a day’s work as far as he was concerned.
He said: “I was working with the goalkeeping coach [Alan Combe] on making the kinds of saves I made in the game. As a goalkeeper you need to prepare for everything and you need to be stable.
“I did that and I saved the ball with my feet. I did that and had a little bit of luck to make the save. The Hamilton game the previous week was frustrating because we had more chances to score, we played better but dropped two points.
“But you could see the players were fighting and wanted to win so I’m happy we kept a clean sheet and took the three points. Every game is important and the three points are the same whether it is Partick or against Celtic.”
Having failed to hold onto a single-goal lead against Accies, Lennon admitted there was a concern that, again, one might not be enough, saying: “It’s always a worry at the back of your mind when you cannot get the second goal, especially when you are in the ascendancy as I think we were for the majority of the second half.
“We had to rely on Ofir making a great save. We worked the ball into good areas, but our final ball was poor, our decision-making was poor. I think we should have picked them off a couple of times, particularly on the counter attack, but our decision-making or final pass was missing.
“But I was really pleased with our overall style of play and the amount of possession we are having in games, particularly away from home. However, you do not win games on possession and territory.
“We looked a bit tentative or hesitant in front of goal, the quality was not good enough from my point of view. You always need the second goal, but we’ve put in two good performances away from home so I am delighted.”
Lennon’s options were so limited by injury and the suspension of midfield powerhouse John McGinn that he was only able to name six substitutes rather than the seven permitted, but the return after a three-month absence of Darren McGregor compensated for the loss of both David Gray and Steven Whittaker and allowed him to start the match with a back three.
And, he admitted, he was very pleased with the performance of 32-year-old McGregor, kicking a ball in anger for the first time since having to undergo a knee operation.
The Hibs boss said: “Darren hasn’t played a lot of football but he was outstanding, unflustered and really good in the air. It was a case of ‘play it as you see it’ for him but he looked really good.
“I wouldn’t say we have missed him but he is a welcome addition to the squad. He’s had a horrendous catalogue of injuries, but he looks after himself well, he’s a fantastic professional and I was delighted with his performance.”
McGinn, of course, will be back for the testing run coming up, Hibs clearly lacking his drive and energy in the middle of the park while Lennon hopes both Gray, rested in a bid to overcome inflammation in a knee, and Whittaker, feeling the effects of an ongoing pelvic problem again, will also be available.
He said: “We only had 17 fit players. The majority of our youngsters are on loan to get experience and we cannot call them back. They are out at clubs like Berwick Rangers, Edinburgh City, Cowdenbeath, Stenhousemuir learning the game.
“The rest are 16 or 17 but, in any case, you can only play three substitutes so I was comfortable with only six on the bench.”