Pat FENLON almost visibly bristles when it’s suggested, as it has been on numerous occasions of late, that Hibs are little more than a one man team.
The individual in question is, of course, Leigh Griffiths and the fact the Scotland striker has claimed exactly half of the Easter Road outfit’s 34 SPL goals so far this season does invite such an observation.
But while Griffiths is a pivotal figure and one whose goals have undoubtedly played a huge part in driving the Capital club into the upper reaches of the table, Fenlon is absolutely right to rebuff such thoughts, football being a team game in which the collective efforts of 11 players determines the final outcome.
Others have chipped in with vital goals along the way, while no-one can underestimate the contribution of goalkeeper Ben Williams with each of the five penalty saves he’s made – a sixth of the seven he’s faced this season having sailed high over his crossbar – having a positive effect on the result from a Hibs perspective.
It would, though, come as no surprise if St Mirren boss Danny Lennon were to declare himself firmly in the camp of those who believe the on-loan Wolves hitman has played an inordinate role in proceedings thus far, the Griffiths penalty which settled this encounter being his fifth of the season against the Paisley club.
Take it a step further, Griffiths has scored all five of Hibs’ goals against the Buddies, earning Fenlon’s side all nine points from the three games between the teams – and don’t forget his first two goals in a green and white shirt came at the other end of the M8 last season as he began what has proved to be a protracted loan spell from Molineux.
Lennon had identified Griffiths as the man his players had to stop, reinforcing the argument that Hibs would be much impoverished if he wasn’t in their ranks, and, a stunning piece of skill in which he nutmegged both Paul Dummett and Jim Goodwin before crashing a vicious shot off the inside of goalkeeper Craig Samson’s post apart, the ex-Easter Road midfielder was probably just beginning to breath a sigh of relief when referee Willie Collum pointed to the spot.
Collum was possibly the only person inside the ground to see Goodwin’s challenge on Matt Done as worthy of a penalty as the pair jostled for Tom Taiwo’s cross, the Hibs winger himself judging the decision as harsh while insisting: “There was contact, it wasn’t a dive.
“I’d feel hard-done-by if I was in his shoes, but it happens and it could well happen to us next week. It was soft, but you take them when they come. These things equal themselves out over the course of a season.”
Lennon groaned: “Up until then the game had 0-0 written all over it.” But while disappointed, Lennon pointed how Collum had awarded his side a penalty in their shock Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final win over Celtic, adding: “We certainly know from that game that Willie Collum is very consistent with them.”
Griffiths’ conversion from 12 yards made it 17 for the season for him, earning Hibs their first league win of the year, and driving them back up to fourth in the table as they bounced back from a shambolic performance against St Johnstone with a much more assured display.
Given the ease with which the Perth club had dismantled his side five days earlier, it came as no surprise to see Fenlon deploy five across the middle of the park with Griffiths the lone striker, a formation which saw Hibs control if not entirely dominate proceedings.
Lennon’s contention the game was looking as if it would end goal-less – Griffiths’ strike against the post, although Samson was later credited with a touch on the ball, and a driving run from Esmael Goncalves which ended with Williams making a good block, the only moments of note – was challenged, though, by Fenlon.
He said: “I believed we would score. I thought we did enough in the first half to do so.”
Almost as pleasing to Fenlon as the three points was the shut-out his side achieved, a return to the scrooge-like defending which had seen them concede only three goals in their seven matches prior to the St Johnstone debacle. He said: “We were much better, our shape was excellent from start to finish. We passed the ball well, particularly in the first half and when we lost the ball we got numbers behind it and made it difficult for St Mirren to break us down.
“I don’t think they created lots of chances. We’d worked during the week to make sure we stopped the supply to Paul McGowan and their strikers and the players took that into the game.”
Like Fenlon, left back Ryan McGivern was delighted to get back to winning ways, but, he admitted, the victory made the disappointment of last Monday all the harder to take.
He said: “When you look back we never put a performance in, we let ourselves down more than anything. Had we got a result along with this performance and win we’d be in an even healthier position in the league.”
And again concurring with his manager, the Northern Ireland internationalist insisted there was no panic as Hibs failed to turn possession into goals.
He said: “We kept getting the ball down, playing and creating chances. With Leigh up top and the two boys [Done and Paul Cairney] out wide we caused them a lot of problems. We had a lot of threat going forward and thankfully we got the break.
“Leigh looked very sharp and that great solo effort in the first half deserved to go in and we were confident he’d put the penalty away.”
Illustrating just how tight the league remains – although the gap between St Mirren in second bottom and Motherwell in second place has stretched slightly to 11 points – was the fact that until Griffiths struck again Hibs were sliding from fifth to seventh. Instead they found themselves moving upwards again and are now only three points off second spot themselves, albeit Motherwell have two games in hand.
McGivern said: “We are concentrating on staying in the top six, to be as high up the table as possible. That’s the main objective, although it’s still good to be in the Scottish Cup with a massive game against Kilmarnock and the chance to go to Hampden.
“But we are taking each game as it comes and hopefully we can have a good season between now and the end of the season.”