Liam Craig today insisted stopping the opposition getting the first goal is the key to dragging Hibs out of the slump which has all but ended their hopes of a top-six finish.
The Easter Road outfit have won just once in their last ten Scottish Premiership matches, but, significantly, that solitary victory came in the only game in that run in which they’ve got their noses in front, a 2-1 triumph over Ross County.
There have, of course, been a clutch of stirring fightbacks, most notably the storming second half performance against Motherwell in which Terry Butcher’s side overhauled a 2-0 deficit, only to lose out on all three points in the dying seconds of the match.
However, midfield star Craig admitted that the Capital club’s propensity for handing their opponents the initiative has been instrumental in a dismal run, which continued on Saturday with Partick Thistle grabbing a two-goal lead which, again, proved too much for the Capital outfit to overcome.
Club captain Craig said: “I think, in this league, the first goal is massive. If you look back to the early part of the season, we went to Kilmarnock and St Johnstone, lost the first goal but managed to come back and win.
“However, you can’t keep doing that. There’s not a lot of games this season when we’ve given ourselves a chance to win by going one or two goals up. You need to do that, otherwise you will be punished, as was shown against Partick. I didn’t feel they offered too much in the first half, but they went in 1-0 up at half-time and we were left chasing the game.
“Then we find ourselves two down. Duncan Watmore gets us back into it with a great finish, but again we lose another goal when we are chasing an equaliser.”
Butcher’s arrival in succession to Pat Fenlon resulted in Hibs becoming a much harder team to beat, just two goals conceded in the big Englishman’s first seven matches in charge, but in recent weeks Hibs have once again become a soft touch, regularly losing three goals a game. At the other end, finding the back of the opposition net has proved problematical, just 29 scored in 30 matches.
To that end, Craig would appear to be stating the obvious when he says Hibs need to do much better at either end of the pitch and to ensure the promising starts they’ve made to matches aren’t allowed to fade as has been the case in the past few weeks.
He said: “In most of our games we’ve started brightly, we did it against Motherwell, gave them a two-goal lead, came back at them and probably should have won the game. We’ve done it again against Partick and a wee bit further back we handed St Mirren a three-goal lead. You just cannot keep doing that and expect to win matches.
“It’s not been good enough. We need to be better and the players know that. There’s only eight games left. We have to treat each of them as a cup final, go out and win them. The boys are hurting, but at the same time we know we are the only ones who can pick us up.”
The defeat by Partick all but ended Hibs hopes of a first top-six finish in four seasons. Although still arithmetically possible, Butcher’s side trail Saints by four points, the McDiarmid Park club have a game in hand and a much superior goal difference despite a shock defeat by Ross County.
A return to Perth is next up for former Saints player Craig and, he insisted, despite the odds being heavily stacked against him and his team-mates, they’ll travel on Saturday in a positive frame of mind.
Conscious that many fans are now worrying more about being dragged into a battle to avoid the dreaded play-off spot, he said: “Obviously it’s going to be very difficult to catch St Johnstone. Our last few results have not been good enough, but we believe there’s a lot of good players in that dressing-room, it’s just that we are not fulfilling our potential at the moment.
“The second half performance against Motherwell was about the level we should be week in, week out, but it should be there for the 90 minutes, not just 45. We’ve not been there and we need to get back to that.
“We need to focus on St Johnstone, get a good week’s hard training in, and be so much better than we have been. We are still positive, we want to be looking up. There’s a lot of teams below us. We are in a better position than them, but we have to win games – there’s no getting away from that.
“Obviously, Partick gained three points on us, but we are looking to be positive.
“The fans are right to show their frustration. Even the ones who went up to Inverness were excellent on what wasn’t a great night, a flat performance. And again at Partick they gave us great backing. We need to give them something back.”
Craig readily agrees this season hasn’t turned out the way he envisaged when he swapped Perth for Edinburgh, but, he’s determined to ensure Hibs’ fortunes brighten considerably.
“Football has its ups and downs,” he said. “This is a great football club, one that deserves to be doing better.
“I want to be successful here. The way we went out of the cups this year wasn’t good and the way we are performing in the league just now hasn’t been good enough. But there are 24 boys in the dressing-room who are hurting as much as anyone. They are a good, honest group of boys who know we have to stick together, work that bit harder and things will turn for us.”
Butcher has threatened to axe many of those who played at Firhill in favour of introducing youngsters, and Craig himself has been among those sitting on the bench for the past couple of games.
He said: “Obviously, I’ve been disappointed as I want to play in every game like anyone else, but the manager has decisions to make. I went out when I was suspended, but I want to prove to him I should be starting games. I want to be a part of a winning team here, one that’s climbing back up the table.
“All of the boys have to prove this week how much they want it, how much they want to be in the team.
“Everyone wants to play. There’s a lot of potential, but we need to start showing it.”