At last, at long last, the Easter Road fans have something to cheer about after a first home league win in seven months.
But how Colin Calderwood’s side had to sweat before they could celebrate this win, clinging on in a five-goal thriller.
The statistics were loaded against Hibs, as it was nine Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League matches since their last win in Edinburgh while they were facing a St Johnstone side which hadn’t conceded a goal on the road this season never mind lose a game.
But the omens were also there. Not since season 2001/02 had Hibs endured such a miserable record, one racked up under the charge of Alex McLeish and then Franck Sauzee but one which also came to an end with a visit from the Perth side, the Capital club’s third boss in as many months, Bobby Williamson, enjoying an emphatic 3-0 win over the Saints. This triumph may not have been quite so clear-cut, but it was every bit as meaningful.
While it didn’t do anything significant in terms of league position, it not only put a little more distance between Hibs and the basement place they’d occupied only a few weeks ago but hauled them within three points of city rivals Hearts in fourth position.
Having been pegged back when Liam Craig cancelled out Ivan Sproule’s opener, Hibs looked to have the three points secured thanks to two more goals from the prolific Garry O’Connor, the striker’s second coming from a contentious penalty kick. However, when Cillian Sheridan, who spent some of the summer on trial at Hibs, held off Easter Road skipper Ian Murray before wheeling away to hammer a low shot in off Graham Stack’s right-hand post, the alarm bells began ringing.
Thankfully there were only two minutes, plus the three added on by referee Steve Conroy, to negotiate – which they safely were – before everyone in green and white could relax and begin to enjoy the moment.
“It’s a nice feeling,” said manager Calderwood, who hasn’t enjoyed too many of those since replacing John Hughes in the Easter Road hotseat almost a year ago. “It always takes a lot of hard work and a lot of luck on occasions to win a game and I think we had both.”
Well aware his side needed to make the most of their game in hand, Calderwood went for a bold approach, fielding the team which began the second half against Dundee United at the weekend, meaning strikers O’Connor and Agogo were flanked by Sproule and Leigh Griffiths, a move which gave Hibs four forwards when needed.
And Calderwood’s decision paid an almost immediate dividend as three of those players combined for the opening goal, Agogo feeding O’Connor before taking a return pass to play in Sproule, who lashed the ball high into the Saints net.
It was the first goal Saints had conceded away from home this season, but the Easter Road outfit’s defensive frailties meant the joy Sproule’s third goal of the season had brought the home fans was short-lived. A mere two minutes in fact, the Northern Ireland star’s duties in tracking back not as effective as when charging at an opposition defence as he found himself too easily held off by Dave Mackay, allowing the Perth full back the opportunity to deliver an inviting ball into the penalty area.
There to meet it, coming in from the left and on the volley, was Liam Craig, scorer of five goals in the previous two seasons against Hibs but more usually via the penalty spot.
Saints sensed Hibs’ jitters and Millar fired a low ball across the face of goal to find no-one gambling on getting into the six-yard box before Agogo, as he had done against United, gave the ball away in midfield, leaving Francisco Sandaza to twist and turn past Sean O’Hanlon before drilling in a low shot which squeezed inches wide of Stack’s far post.
Hibs, though, steadied themselves and Sproule left Mackay trailing in his wake as he raced onto Isaiah Osbourne’s pass only to elect to knock the ball across goal rather than going for it himself.
But seconds later, Hibs were back in front again thanks to the burgeoning partnership between Agogo and O’Connor. The Ghana striker chested the ball to his team-mate who took it down and outmuscled Steven Anderson before coolly sliding a shot beyond the helpless Peter Enckelman.
It had been a hugely entertaining first half and it wasn’t finished there, Sandaza forcing a save from Stack, who then had to throw himself full length to push Craig’s low drive wide of target, while at the other end O’Connor saw his shot beaten to safety by Enckelman.
Saints restarted by throwing themselves at Hibs, but there was a determined look about Calderwood’s players who adopted a no-nonsense approach to defending, although the movement and pace of Sandaza was a continual threat. Millar went close to equalising again with a rising shot from 22 yards which flew just wide.
However, regardless of the number of goals they’ve been conceding this season, Hibs have carried their own threat at the other end and once again the combination of Agogo and O’Connor was Saints’ undoing, the pair playing a delightful one-two which allowed the Easter Road side’s top scorer to charge into the penalty area where he went down under the challenge of David McCracken.
It looked soft, O’Connor appearing to have crashed into McCracken rather than there being any intent on the Perth player’s part, but referee Steven Conroy had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, allowing O’Connor to take his tally for the season to ten with yet another ice-cool finish.
The opening, though, was yet another example of the promising partnership O’Connor and Agogo are forming, with six goals having now been scored in the space of just a few days. Calderwood said: “I think we are creating more chances and when you look back at the goals there’s always a combination between the two of them.
“Junior is getting closer to what I expect of him in terms of his physical output and certainly his contribution. He is unselfish in what he does.” Calderwood himself adopted a pragmatic approach to ensure there wouldn’t be another of those collapses which have caused so much damage.
Having replaced Griffiths, an injury doubt before kick-off, with the combative Martin Scott, he made another switch, replacing Sproule with Lewis Stevenson, signalling his determination to dig in for the final 18 minutes and so end that seven-month home hoodoo.
Even so, nerves were shredded in those final few minutes after Sheridan had threatened to undo much of the good work put in by Hibs, Calderwood accepting such a fraught ending was always a possibility given the nervousness which appears to grip his players at times.
But he added: “What the crowd really rose to was the effort and the commitment to hang on to their lead. We kept everyone here because we can keep the game exciting, and that we did.”
Five matches without a defeat has made September a significant month in Hibs’ season.
Whether it has turned on those results remains to be seen, but Calderwood’s players couldn’t ask for a tougher match now than Saturday’s visit to Ibrox and table-topping Rangers.
They will, however, approach Govan on the first day of October with a greater confidence than they might have done a few weeks ago.