PAT FENLON and his players probably awoke this morning half expecting to discover the newly created National Crime Agency had mounted a dawn raid on Easter Road in search of the three points snaffled from Partick Thistle.
Had the Hibs boss departed Firhill in a striped jersey and carrying a bag emblazoned “swag”, he couldn’t have made his declaration of having enjoyed something of a “smash and grab” at the Jags’ expense any clearer.
But if Thistle felt hard done by, not even a solitary point to show for 90 minutes in which they did everything but score – not an uncommon outcome for Alan Archibald’s side since their return to the top flight of Scottish football – Fenlon would, no doubt, reflect on how his own team had felt exactly the same in the wake of those defeats by Motherwell and Hearts, which helped ensure an uncomfortable start to the season for the Irishman.
Instead, Hibs today sit joint fourth in the Scottish Premiership table, a testament more to their grit, determination and resilience than silky football, but, as Fenlon observed afterwards, to emerge the victors when you have been up against it, as his side were for much of this match, says something in itself.
“It was a bit smash and grab from us to be totally honest,” admitted Fenlon after Liam Craig’s sixth goal of the season secured a win which had much to do with a stunning performance by Ben Williams.
The goalkeeper kept his team level when confronted by Partick striker Kris Doolan in a one-on-one situation and then ensured they kept the points with a fantastic point-blank stop from Christie Elliot and then, seconds later, another remarkable effort to prevent Ross Forbes from equalising.
Having been cast as the villain of the piece the previous weekend, Williams reacted in the manner his manager predicted. He said: “Since he has been here, Ben has been a fantastic goalkeeper for the club. His game temperament is fantastic.
“I knew last week would not bother him, he is the type of character that just gets on with it.”
A self-inflicted wound had been at the root of Hibs’ downfall in Invernes ... that dreadful mix-up between Williams and centre half Michael Nelson gifting Caley the first of the three goals which brought the Easter Road outfit’s six match unbeaten run to an end.
Fenlon has long acknowledged his side’s propensity for offering the opposition a helping hand, a tendency which almost two years into his tenure as manager he has yet to totally eradicate.
Yet again, he would have had his head in his hands as he witnessed once more an inexplicable lapse which granted the Jags a wonderful opportunity to open the scoring after just four minutes.
Kallum Higginbotham’s cross from the left was enticing enough for lone striker Doolan to give chase, even although Ryan McGivern looked well in command of the situation.
Whether the close proximity of Doolan spooked him or not, the Northern Ireland defender opted to play a passback to Williams rather than clear, the goalkeeper dropping on it six yards out even although it was an obvious passback, no doubt concerned that if he attempted to put his boot through the ball it could well break off the Thistle man and into the net.
However, as so happens in such situations, the danger passed after Higginbotham played the ball back for former Hibs midfielder Sean Welsh to strike. His shot hammered into the wall of green shirts which had raced from the goal-line and dropped kindly for Williams.
The incident, nevertheless, set the tone for much of what was to happen in the opening 45 minutes, the Firhill side knocking the ball around with more than a little panache, while Fenlon’s players couldn’t get enough possession to pose any threat of their own.
A series of tight offside decisions by assistant referee John McCrossan had the Maryhill fans howling in anger before Higginbotham picked out Conrad Balatoni from one of a series of corners which his side had forced, the former Hearts kid meeting the ball flush on the penalty area, only to see Scott Robertson perfectly positioned to block before McGivern completed the clearance.
With Stuart Bannigan operating between Hibs’ back four and the midfield, Partick were managing to pick holes in the Easter Road side. Higginbotham and Steven Lawless provided width on either flank as play continued to flood towards Williams’ goal without the Hibs No. 1 being forced into any drastic action, comfortably taking a Higginbotham shot and then an effort by Welsh which had looped up off Kevin Thomson.
Hibs, however, did not help themselves on occasion, both Tom Taiwo and McGivern attempting passes across the centre of midfield with an opposition player between them and their intended target on both occasions.
The Edinburgh club had rarely been seen in an attacking context, once again their use of the final ball too poor to cause Thistle many problems, while the distinct lack of width and pace – deficiencies Fenlon insisted he intends to address in the January transfer window should funds permit – were all too evident.
If Hibs had steadied the ship a little towards the interval, Balatoni’s tackle on James Collins perfectly timed as Thomson attempted to deliver a slide-rule pass for the striker, it was Thistle who perhaps should have taken the lead right on the stroke of half-time when Doolan rose to power a header from Stephen O’Donnell’s superb cross inches over.
Fenlon, though, would have been questioning during that dressing-room chat just why every one of his players had stood off the full-back to allow him the time and space to create such an opening.
If Doolan was left cursing his luck at that point, the home fans were cursing him five minutes into the second half when Nelson failed to cut out Aaron Muirhead’s long ball forward, leaving the striker a clear run on Williams who, to his credit, refused to panic as he stood his ground before palming away the weak shot and the game’s best opportunity was scorned.
Whatever Fenlon might have had to say in the sanctuary of the dressing-room appeared to have had little of its desired effect as Alan Archibald’s players, confidence oozing from every pore despite their failure to make their superiority count, continued to pound forward.
Paul Hanlon hesitated as he saw Williams make a move towards O’Donnell’s long ball only to step back, leaving Doolan to latch on to it. But again the opening went begging as Hanlon made up those precious few yards to avert the danger at the expense of a corner.
But just as Hibs were threatening to buckle under the incessant Thistle attacks, substitute Abdellah Zoubir came up with that bit of magic which team-mate Lewis Stevenson had alluded to pre-match, the French kid enjoying the break of the ball just inside the Thistle half and, despite being fronted up by two Jags defenders, looked up to pick out Craig arriving from the left wing and into the penalty area.
The midfielder didn’t need to break stride as he met the ball right-footed and directed it high beyond Scott Fox’s left hand, the goalkeeper rooted to the spot as it flew into the net, leaving the home side and their supporters in a state of disbelief.
Hibs, though, had those two late frights to survive, Williams somehow getting a boot to Elliott’s point-blank effort and then rising high to his left just seconds later to touch Forbes’ piledriver over to claim only his third clean sheet of the season.
Fenlon said: “In the first half, I thought Thistle were excellent. They played really well. They had a lot more possession than us, but I don’t think they caused us lots of problems in front of goal.
“We were a little bit better in the second half, we looked more composed on the ball when Owain Tudur Jones and Zoubir came on. However, they probably created three or four chances, but Ben has made some terrific saves.
“I was delighted with the three points. Firhill is a difficult place to go. I’ve watched them a fair bit. They are a good side with a good system and they pass the ball well.”