Hibs should be thankful for still having a chance

Hibs captain Liam Craig
Hibs captain Liam Craig
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Down but, incredibly, not yet out. The relegation trapdoor has been creaking ominously beneath their feet for weeks but it has still to give way and send Hibs crashing into the Championship.

It may happen after all but, once again, Terry Butcher’s struggling side have an opportunity – a double-header against either Falkirk or Hamilton – to retain their Scottish Premiership status.

And it’s a chance they should be thankful to have, for in any other season they’d already be goners. Just one win in their last 19 matches, a mere three goals scored in ten games, a miserly 31 notched in an entire league campaign in which four victories were enjoyed at Easter Road. Statistics which, normally, would condemn any side to the drop.

This season, though, hasn’t been any ordinary old season, the 15 point deduction and transfer embargo imposed on Hearts making them favourites before a ball was kicked to be heading out of the top flight.

While many Hibs fans have spent months revelling in their rivals’ discomfort, it’s now the turn of the Tynecastle support to have their fun. They’ll no doubt be quick to point out that Gary Locke’s side would have finished above the Hibees had it not been for those 15 points and now, over the course of the next ten days, they’ll undoubtedly enjoy having the spotlight directed on Butcher’s players before the final play-off round gets underway.

The big question between now and then, though, will be “Do Hibs have what it takes to save themselves?” There’s been precious little evidence since early January that they do possess what it takes – a team that can’t score goals always has an air of fragility, Hibs having failed to find the back of the opponents’ net on an incredible 22 occasions in all competitions stretching back to that 9-0 aggregate mauling by Malmo in the Europa League which has hung around their necks like a millstone despite November’s change of management when Pat Fenlon decided it had all become a bit too much for him.

The initial uplift Butcher’s arrival inspired soon evaporated, his eternal optimism which endured right to this final match of the regular season, the Hibs boss claiming he’d already prepared his victory celebrations in advance of the arrival of Kilmarnock, proving somewhat misplaced. The big Englishman, of course, had to do all he could to maintain the morale of a team which was being battered from pillar to post even if he was well aware, as were the majority of onlookers, that escaping the pitfall of a play-off was beyond his players.

One look at the squad he’d inherited from Fenlon would suggest it was one strong enough to be competing in the top half of the table but collectively the sum of the parts don’t add up to anywhere near the whole. Apart from that short spell over Christmas and New Year when three successive matches were won, Hibs have been desperate, supporters becoming increasingly dispirited and disaffected by a lack of results, goals and the quality of football on offer.

Little wonder, then, that this latest defeat provoked an after-match protest, a couple of hundred fans gathering outside the main entrance to vent their anger at both chairman Rod Petrie and his board but also Butcher. Hundreds more would have shared their fury but, like so many who have simply given up on going to Easter Road over the past few seasons, would probably have claimed apathy as an excuse for not joining in.

Staying up, no matter how it is achieved, may be the primary and short-term objective, but tempting those disenfranchised supporters back on a regular basis will be an ongoing concern for new chief executive Leeann Dempster when she arrives next month.

She’ll be given a free hand to conduct a root and branch review of all the club’s activities, with the most glaring problem to be addressed being a massive overhaul of the playing staff, a number of those who’ve arrived having failed to live up to expectations while others haven’t managed to reproduce their previous form,

The No.1 priority, though, must be to find a striker capable of getting well into double figures. James Collins inherited the unenviable mantle of trying to emulate Leigh Griffiths’ 28 goals of last season, but while it would be unfair to lay all Hibs troubles at his feet, a paltry half-dozen strikes – the last of which came almost four months ago – is far from what is expected of a team’s main striker.

There have been extenuating reasons; his experienced partner Paul Heffernan having spent much of the season out injured, although he made a surprise return against his old club, which has left Hibs relying on 18-year-old Jason Cummings in his first season as a professional and Danny Handling, who is more comfortable playing off the front.

How Butcher must wish he had someone as reliable as Killie’s Kris Boyd, the Rugby Park star taking his tally for the season to 22 with the only goal of the game. The ex-Rangers forward remained switched on as the Hibs defence switched off as he met Ross Barbour’s cross to flash a low shot beyond Ben Williams. And he could have had more. His clever movement winning him the space to power in a downward header which was brilliantly touched away by the Hibs goalkeeper, before another shot smacked into the face of Jordon Forster.

For Hibs, though, it was a depressingly familiar 90 minutes. A failure to turn early pressure into goals – Killie keeper Craig Samson saving Scott Robertson’s low shot with his legs before Barry Nicholson took the midfielder’s glancing header off his own line - leaving them vulnerable at the back, with Williams having enjoyed just one clean sheet in this calender year.

And watching Liam Craig’s shot crash back off the crossbar probably summed Hibs season up in a micro-second.

It’s all looking terribly desperate, but Butcher remains confident Hibs will remain in the Premiership, adamant he’s the man to turn the club’s fortunes around. He said: “I still see myself being here.

“But we have two games to try to rectify the wrongs of the previous 38. We have ten days until the first game and we will look at the opposition and prepare accordingly. We can still get ourselves out of this – and I am confident we will stay in the Premiership.”

There will be many Hibs fans today wishing they could share the manager’s optimism.