How buoyant Kilmarnock have highlighted Hibs’ lingering limitations
Upon leaving Rugby Park after Kilmarnock’s victory over Hibs, it was impossible not to detect the vibrancy coursing through a club basking in the relative glory presently being overseen by Steve Clarke.
Some 90 minutes after full-time, there were still scores of jubilant supporters in and around the bars in the vicinity of the stadium singing gleefully in the evening sunshine after the Ayrshire side’s latest victory in a memorable season which will end with them in the top four of the Premiership, possibly third, and probably in Europe for the first time in 18 years.
Killie fans are currently in a state of giddiness akin to that which their Hibs counterparts enjoyed a year or so ago as Neil Lennon led a swashbuckling team into Europe in their first season back in the top flight. Due to various well-documented circumstances - most notably the loss of the quality midfield trio of Dylan McGeouch, John McGinn and Scott Allan - Hibs regressed this season, to the point where Paul Heckingbottom was required to come in in February and perform a hugely impressive salvage job to haul the team from eighth up to fifth.
As Hibs put together a ten-game unbeaten run in the league, their prospects of sneaking into Europe for a second successive appeared to be growing, although there remained plenty among the Hibs support who, although enjoying the Heckingbottom revival, remained sceptical about the team’s chances of catching either Kilmarnock or Aberdeen and climbing from mid-table into the top-four. Ultimately, this challenge has proven a bridge too far, as the resurgence overseen by the Yorkshireman has shuddered to a halt in recent weeks, with only one win, and just three goals, in the last six matches.
Kilmarnock, in particular, have exposed the lingering weaknesses in the Hibs team by putting the shackles on them twice in the past five and a half weeks, at Easter Road and Rugby Park, and generally looking a notch above the Edinburgh side in both of these meetings without getting the goals their general superiority merited. In the 0-0 draw in Leith last month, Killie, despite being the visitors, looked every inch a top-four team as they controlled much of the match with purpose and poise and had their hosts hanging on at times.
This grim 1-0 defeat in the rematch at Rugby Park, where Kilmarnock ought to have won by a more comfortable margin, reaffirmed the notion, peddled by Heckingbottom himself throughout his fledgling reign so far, that Hibs still have a good bit of work to do if they are to get themselves back to the standard of last season, and to the level of Clarke’s Kilmarnock. Heckingbottom’s nous has taken Hibs further than they could realistically have hoped when he was first appointed in February, but as they have started to plateau since being pitted consistently against the league’s stronger teams over the past month or so, it has become apparent that more stardust (in addition to the return of Scott Allan from Celtic and Martin Boyle from injury) is required, particularly in the attacking department of the squad, if they are to re-establish themselves as a top-four team next term.