IF THIS match was being viewed, as many claimed, as an opportunity for Hibs to judge where they stand against a team tipped to end up runners-up behind Celtic then it is clear Pat Fenlon’s players are still rather short of fulfilling their own claims that they are as capable as anyone of finishing second.
The end of the first round of fixtures was seen as the ideal opportunity, for the Easter Road club to assess exactly where they stand with the Scottish Premiership table now beginning to take shape with Celtic, as expected, already out in front, while others begin to jostle for the title “best of the rest”.
Hibs’ credentials to be considered as one of those candidates had strengthened after a poor start to the season was replaced by a run which had seen them beaten just once in their previous nine matches, the latest of which had resulted in a creditable point from the visit of Celtic seven days earlier, 90 minutes of graft, determination and, lest it be forgotten, some decent football from a team which is earning itself a reputation of being unspectacular but resolute and hard to beat.
The arrival of Aberdeen offered a further opportunity to enhance the growing belief, at least within the Easter Road dressing-room and their supporters, that talk of battling it out with the likes of the Dons, Motherwell, Inverness Caley and Dundee United wasn’t, after all, too fanciful for a club, which, in the previous three seasons, had finished tenth, 11th and seventh.
There was, too, the carrot of knowing victory would lift them above Derek McInnes’ side and into fourth place, although Fenlon had insisted in the build-up to this match that such an incentive shouldn’t be needed, that he had spoken to his players of the danger of letting the standards they’d set against Celtic slip and of the need to reproduce the sort of performance which had left them disappointed only to have drawn with the champions.
Like everyone else, Fenlon was only too well aware of the propensity of teams coming off the back of a good result against Celtic – and, in years gone by, Rangers – to let themselves down, but, sadly, the manager’s warnings appeared to go unheeded as a side boasting just one enforced change – club skipper James McPake a straight replacement for the injured Michael Nelson – looked but a mere shadow of what it had been a week before.
While keen to give Aberdeen the credit they were due for a well-deserved victory, a baffled Fenlon said: “We let them dictate from early on and that caused us problems.
“I don’t think we got anywhere near where we were against Celtic. We didn’t deserve anything out of it, so I can’t complain, but the fact we didn’t play to the levels we know we are capable of is more disappointing.”
Having yet again made a slow start, Hibs did gradually haul themselves into the match without causing Jamie Langfield too many problems, the goalkeeper flopping on a couple of low crosses from Liam Craig and Kevin Thomson and beating away a Paul Heffernan volley from a fantastic crossfield ball from Scott Robertson, although the angle and the fact the striker had to take it first time was always going to favour him.
Heffernan’s effort, though, was Hibs’ only shot on target and although the Dons enjoyed most possession, they, likewise, didn’t over-trouble Ben Williams at the other end, the goalkeeper’s only serious save being to push away an early shot from Mark Reynolds.
After half-time, though, it was a different story, Peter Pawlett racing away only to see Williams save his shot with his legs, McPake throwing himself in with a superb block on Niall McGinn as he latched on to the rebound. McGinn nodded a Johnny Hayes cross into Williams’ hands, Calvin Zola hooked over after Paul Hanlon had intercepted another Hayes pass and McGinn was again off target when the Dons top scorer of last season was offered another look at goal.
McInnes admitted he was beginning to despair, but, as every manager hopes for, the substitutions he made, introducing Scott Vernon and Gregg Wylde, had an almost instant impact, aided and abetted by a simple error from Lewis Stevenson. The right back appeared to have averted the imminent danger when he dispossessed Vernon, but he was caught in possession leaving the big striker to hammer in a terrific shot which flew high into the corner of the net.
The mistake had nothing to do with Stevenson, as he has been in recent weeks, playing out of position, as he admitted. While Fenlon felt his player had been fouled in the build-up, Stevenson himself said: “I don’t want to make excuses. I felt I should have cleared it rather than try to nick it past an Aberdeen player.
“I’m disappointed and I hold my hands up.”
Hibs were thrown an almost immediate lifeline when Langfield slipped as he dealt with a pass-back from Barry Robson, but James Collins, still struggling to convince the home support following his £200,000 move from Swindon, could do no better than curl a low shot beyond the far post, Fenlon admitting it would have been something of a steal had it gone in.
Wylde made sure there was no way back for Hibs, given the time and space to beat Williams by Vernon a minute into the four added on by referee Steven McLean to lift the Dons into second place – while Hibs slipped down to sixth.
Goals have been at a premium for Hibs this season, just nine scored in their 11 league games in stark contrast to last season when the first round of matches saw them claim 21 with nine coming from Leigh Griffiths. Fenlon has insisted Collins has suffered as Hibs have been without wide players such as Alex Harris, Paul Cairney and Sam Stanton, his side unable to deliver crosses from the flanks upon which the striker thrives, but resisted on this occasion the temptation to use Cairney who was among the substitutes having recovered from ankle ligament damage.
Eighteen points were also gained as opposed to the 15 taken this time round, but, McPake insisted, despite this poor display there’s no danger of Fenlon’s players capitulating as they did last season as they slid down the table having been vying with Celtic at the very summit at one point.
He said: “It’s an off day. We can’t dwell on it. It felt like we were just hoping for a clean sheet and if we’d got one it would have been a good day’s work. It was a different match from Celtic last week.
“We spent too much of the game defending and you can only do that for so long. You need to keep the ball and we didn’t do it long enough.
“It’s how you come back from setbacks. Previously this club has crumbled. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen again and I don’t believe it will.”
Fenlon, of course, has been labouring under a lengthy casualty list, regularly without up to seven first team players at any one stage, and, although that situation is easing a little, McInnes made the point that his own squad had been strengthened with the return of injury victims.
Although Nelson is now facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a fractured eye socket, Fenlon believes he could have a full squad available for the first time in only a few weeks time, no doubt hoping the return of the absentees will have a similar effect.