James Collins finally got the break he’d been looking for. After five-and-a-half matches and 509 minutes of action the £200,000 striker got his first goal for Hibs but not before having to endure a few more agonising minutes as he watched the ball spin slowly into the St Johnstone net, his shot having been only half-stopped by goalkeeper Alan Mannus.
Probably not the way the 22-year-old envisaged getting of the mark at his new club but, hey, a goal is a goal no matter how it is scored and, as any striker will tell you, so long as it crosses that line they don’t care.
Collins did care, though, the relief of ending that long wait – one which he had admitted was beginning to mess with his head despite the assurances from all and sundry that it would only be a matter of time – evident to all as he raced behind Mannus’ goal pursued by his equally ecstatic team-mates, his 59th minute strike all the sweeter as it proved to be the winner, one which stretched Hibs’ unbeaten run to four matches and lifted Pat Fenlon’s side into the upper half of the Scottish Premiership.
Hardly the scenario envisaged only a few weeks ago as pressure mounted on the Easter Road boss, the fiasco of Malmo followed by defeats at the hands of Motherwell and, more painfully, Capital rivals Hearts, results which had many rushing to a hasty judgment and calling for Fenlon’s head. The Irishman, though, stood his ground, adamant that one his new-look squad – ten players having arrived over the course of the summer – gelled a few rays of sunshine would begin to poke through the clouds of despair which had descended on the east side of Edinburgh.
“As a football manager you have to take the good with the bad, you just get on with it,” he replied when asked if he felt vindicated by the current run of results.
Nonetheless, even if he wasn’t willing to admit as much publicly, Fenlon, like Collins, will today no doubt be feeling more than a little better within as he conceded in saying: “If you are on a bad run confidence does ebb away from people but when you are on a decent run, you get a belief.”
That much was evident, Fenlon pointed out, in his side’s second half in Perth when, having overcome Stevie May’s early opener for Saints with Paul Heffernan levelling before half-time, they went ahead through Collins and then proceeded to more or less boss the remainder of the match and were, arguably, worth a couple more goals.
Mannus had to pull off a sharp save from Heffernan as he had done much earlier from Liam Craig before the home side survived a penalty claim when substitute Abdellah Zoubir’s low cross reared up and appeared to strike the arm of defender Steven Anderson.
Three points as St Johnstone suffered their first defeat at home since Paul Cairney’s goal sunk them last November, though, was satisfaction enough for Fenlon as was that second half performance which he rated the best Hibs have played this season. Few would argue.
Fenlon said: “You could see us grow in confidence in the second half, we passed the ball better, we kept it, switched the play and had some real good possession. I was delighted, it was a big three points for us. The second half was obviously the best we have played this season, no doubt about it. I thought we played tremendously well and deserved to win.”
Once again, though, Hibs had to do it the hard way, Fenlon’s side having failed to take the lead in any match so far this season, the points gained from the games against Dundee United, Kilmarnock and, now, St Johnstone, having all come after they’ve fallen behind. Testament, as Fenlon insisted to his players’ character, but a trait which, if he doesn’t mind so long as Hibs don’t lose, has, he revealed, caused a few more grey hairs.
“When you go behind away from home it’s difficult,” he conceded, “But we showed tremendous character, played some good stuff, created a few more chances that we could have scored.”
While Hibs’ early play was scrappy and, again, lacking decent use of the ball in the final third, their game came together after Heffernan displayed the composure you’d expect from an experienced striker to cancel out May’s precisely struck shot, the 31-year-old remaining calm as Scott Robertson’s shot after Collins’ effort came back off the post to sidefoot the ball into the empty net.
Saints, as they had at the start of the first half, made the early running after the interval, Michael Nelson coming up with a superb block just as former Hibs midfielder Paddy Cregg prepared to pull the trigger, but thereafter there was little doubt as to who was running the show.
Liam Craig’s little dink over the top saw Collins hook a shot goalwards, Mannus got a hand to it and for a split-second appeared to have done enough to ensure the former Swindon Town striker’s goal drought would continue only for the ball to spin into the net.
Collins said: “I thought to myself ‘I need to score today’. Luckily I hit the winner although my overall play wasn’t great but scoring the goal has got me out of jail. I’m really pleased to get off the mark. I just kept my eye on the ball to make sure it got over the line. A lot of the boys didn’t think it was going to creep over, but sometimes you need that bit of luck.
“As strikers you’re always judged on goals and not scoring in five isn’t great. But a bit of luck has come my way so I can relax now and the goals will come.”
With Hibs’ three previous Premiership strikes having come from midfielders Robertson and Craig, seeing both Heffernan and Collins score was another cause for satisfaction on Fenlon’s part.
He said: “Both of them will get a huge boost to their confidence. Strikers live and breath scoring goals. You can do all the work, have a decent game, but when you come off as a striker you are always disappointed if you have not scored. I didn’t think James’ one was going to get over the line to be honest, I thought he was going to have another of those days and Mannus was going to get back and save it so I am delighted for him, I’m delighted for both of them.”