POST-MATCH: Hibs lack fizz as Irn-Bru Cup bid falls flat

Jordon Forster, centre, holds his head in his hands after heading wide from close range. Pic: SNS
Jordon Forster, centre, holds his head in his hands after heading wide from close range. Pic: SNS
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After watching his side fail to win their three previous games, Neil Lennon sought solace in reflecting that there would be times when Hibs would play worse and yet win.

On this occasion they did – and didn’t. “Insipid” and “amateurish” were the scathing observations from the Easter Road boss after watching the Capital club stumble out of the Irn-Bru Cup, beaten by the Championship’s basement outfit St Mirren.

And this was, don’t forget, a team without a win in nine games and with their new manager Jack Ross 300 miles away in north Wales, guiding Alloa Athletic to the last eight of the competition in his final match in charge of the Wasps before moving to Paisley today.

He will arrive, as caretaker boss Allan McManus insisted, to find his players with a bit of a spring in their step.

For Hibs, however, it has all gone horribly wrong over the past month, a run of five successive league wins which appeared to confirm the belief of many that they would run away with the title brought to a shuddering halt by last month’s shock defeat by Championship newcomers Ayr United.

At the time that result was seen as little more than a hiccup but, instead, it has precipitated a worrying situation for Lennon, his side toppled from the top of the table, just two points from a possible nine and now out of a competition in which they were probably favourites to lift the trophy and one which the manager himself had insisted he’d like to win.

They looked on course to book a place in the quarter-finals when Alex Harris finally brought a dire opening half-hour or so to life, the winger cutting in from the left and then taking advantage of slip by Saints midfielder Kyle Hutton to drill a low shot between goalkeeper Jamie Langfield and his near post.

Incredibly, it was Harris’ first Hibs goal since that stunning strike against Falkirk three-and-a-half years ago which sparked that remarkable Scottish Cup semi-final fightback and also his first at Easter Road.

It was, for Harris, who had spent the 18 months before this season got underway on loan at Dundee and Queen of the South, a moment he should have been able to treasure in years to come.

But a contentious decision by referee Willie Collum to penalise Dylan McGeouch as Buddies’ midfielder Rocco Quinn ran into him – the Hibs man appearing to have done no more than stand his ground – only four minutes later brought Saints back into it, Steven Mallan curling a wonderful free-kick from 25 yards high into the corner of Ofir Marciano’s net.

It should have been no more than a momentary setback for Hibs and so it looked as they took control after the interval, only for that far too familiar inability to get a second killer goal to elude them.

James Keatings skied 
over from a good position, 
McGeouch rattled the post with Langfield beaten while the goalkeeper got down well to get a strong right hand to a Harris effort after he’d 
stolen in behind the visiting defence to meet Fraser Fyvie’s long ball.

However, that was probably the only time Hibs, who had gone with Harris and Martin Boyle to add width, managed to create such a situation, their play all too often across the front of Saints defence and lacking any great penetration.

As in those previous games against Ayr and Dundee United, one goal proved not to be enough once more, Hibs getting themselves in a fankle as they tried to play out from the back, skipper David Gray dispossessed and the ball falling for David Clarkson, who managed to get his shot away despite the close attentions of Marvin Bartley.

Assistant referee Brian Templeton raised the offside flag immediately having spotted Clarkson’s team-mate Lawrence Shankland ahead of him as the ball rolled goalwards, but the substitute realised the position he was in and resisted the temptation to give it one final touch just to be sure, leaving Collum to rightly over-rule his colleague to award the goal.

Even then Hibs had opportunities to force an extra 30 minutes, Jordon Forster – by this time operating as an auxiliary centre forward – heading wide when he should have scored, before Bartley nodded Keatings corner straight into the arms of Langfield when a yard either side would have brought an equaliser.

It was the third time in four games Hibs had held the upper hand and yet failed to emerge victorious, something which, Harris revealed, only added to the frustration among Lennon’s players.

He said: “We were flying before the Ayr game, but that seems to have set us back a bit. We’d started so well but I don’t know what has happened, something is not clicking.

“It was one of those days, it didn’t happen for us. I wouldn’t say there’s a nervousness, the boys never talk about nerves or anything like that. We were just flat, there was no spark.”

Harris admitted he thought he’d done just that with his goal, saying: “It was, hopefully, going to be a day to remember, my first Hibs goal in such a while and my first at Easter Road.

“But it is all about the result. It was good getting the goal but in the end it was a disappointing day.

“It’s gone a bit flat, performances and results. Being in a winning position and not doing so is frustrating. In two of the games we were down to ten men which makes a difference but even so we felt we were in control of those matches.

“It’s now four games in which we’ve picked up just two points and gone out of this cup, for a team of our quality we should be winning most games.

“We are bossing games but then being hit by a sucker punch. We’re not getting that second goal to kill teams off and that’s what it’s down to recently.”

If Harris believes the current mini-crisis not down to nerves, Lennon does, the manager saying: “There is a nervousness about them at the minute, I don’t know what the reason is.

“The first half was insipid, we let St Mirren back into the game which was ridiculous and the second goal was nonsense from our point of view. It’s amateur stuff and it needs to stop.”