Michael Hart today handed his Easter Road team-mates a stark warning as he admitted the battle to avoid the drop is now between Hibs and Dunfermline.
The little breathing space Pat Fenlon’s side had gained by defeating the Pars seven days previously evaporated as the Capital club crashed to a seventh home defeat of the season, once more narrowing the gap between them and the SPL’s basement club to a single point.
And by the end of the day Hibs might well find themselves replacing the Fife outfit at the bottom of the pile should Dunfermline follow up their stunning win over Kilmarnock at the weekend with another victory at Motherwell tonight.
As it stands, however, seven points separate Hibs from third-bottom Inverness Caley and although assistant boss Billy Brown insisted relegation was by far from a two-way issue, defender Hart begged to differ.
The former Aberdeen, Livingston and Preston North End right back said: “I think it’s between us and Dunfermline, definitely. I have thought that for the last couple of weeks.”
Those are words no-one at Easter Road will like to hear but Hart’s candid appraisal of the predicament Hibs are in mirrors that of a growing number of supporters who are questioning if the club can survive in the top flight.
Two seasons of misery have seen home gates dwindle, leaving fans to question how clubs such as St Johnstone, Motherwell, Kilmarnock and St Mirren, who regularly attract much smaller crowds and operate on tighter budges than Hibs, are all enjoying greater success on the field of play.
Arguments will rage, of course, as to the debilitating effect the constant changing of managers and the subsequent “churning” of players has had, another upheaval under way on that front as Fenlon desperately seeks to strengthen a squad which failed so miserably under his predecessor Colin Calderwood.
However, such debates are for others, to players such as Hart and his team-mates it’s what is done during the 90 minutes of matchday which matters and to that end, the 31-year-old conceded culpability rests with those who are currently pulling on the green and white jersey.
As such, the defeat by St Johnstone at the weekend merely encapsulated the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Hibs, the good and the bad, or, to put it in a word, the inconsistency which has blighted their performances for too long.
A goal down to Lee Croft’s strike, Hibs hauled themselves level via Leigh Griffiths’ penalty only to surrender the initiative within seconds as Paul Hanlon and David Stephens failed to deal with Dave Mackay’s innocuous ball forward, allowing Liam Craig to fire the Saints ahead once more.
The battling qualities Hibs had shown in the previous two weeks in coming from behind to defeat Cowdenbeath and then Dunfermline, both games ending 3-2, were to the fore again, Callum Booth striding forward to curl a second equaliser beyond Peter Enckelman, prompting hopes, even, of a winning goal for the Edinburgh side.
Fran Sandaza, however, had different ideas, finding the space and time to collect Craig’s low cross before wheeling and drilling an inch-perfect shot inside goalkeeper Mark Brown’s left hand post.
Hart admitted his own part in that particular moment, accepting his initial headed clearance could have been better, but, there again, questions remain as to how Craig’s cross was allowed to make its way as far as Sandaza and again as to how the Spaniard was afforded the opportunity to deliver his clinical effort.
Struggling for words to explain just what had gone on, Hart said: “We got ourselves back in the game and chucked it away. Then we got back in again and chucked it away again.
“From the time of us scoring our first goal to them getting their second was something like 20 seconds, then their third comes only a couple of minutes after we have equalised again.
“The positives are we are scoring goals but the negative is we are conceding too easily, bad defensive errors. It’s nice to win but we have to do so without needing to score three goals every week.
“Their first was a good goal, Paul Hanlon blocks it and it fall into the path of their guy again. You have to hold your hands up and say ‘great goal’. The second should have been cleared, it was a really bad mistake, and the third was a poor header from me but then Sandaza gets the ball on the edge of the box, manages to turn and puts it in the bottom corner, it just cannot happen.”
Hart reflected that with the benefit of hindsight Hibs should, perhaps, have settled for a point but, given the situation they find themselves in, he revealed Fenlon’s players had the scent of victory in their nostrils.
He said: “When you get back into the game, on a high and doing well you want to kick on and try to win. We need to win and we need the points.
“Confidence-wise as a defender you’d take the draw but the way we were playing after we equalised, and even before then, I thought we were the better team. I thought we created a hell of a lot of chances but that means nothing when you are giving goals away so cheaply. I felt the game was there for the taking and we blew it.
“I thought we played well but we are making too many individual errors. You can make mistakes as long as you don’t make too many, but the problem is that we are making them on a weekly basis and it’s costing us big time.”
Deepening the gloom which had already descended on the Leith ground was the news that Dunfermline had pulled off a seemingly unlikely win at Rugby Park, many having questioned whether Jim McIntyre’s players could get over the double whammy they’d suffered in the previous few days, that defeat by Hibs and then being knocked out of the William Hill Scottish Cup at the hand of Inverness Caley.
Hart, though, expressed no great surprise even although the Pars had endured extra-time in their cup tie. He said: “We saw in our game against them that Dunfermline are not too bad a team. They have decent enough players, guys with lots of experience. They won’t give up, they’ve been used to being in that position and battling to get out of it.”
However, Hart insisted Fenlon’s players have to ignore what the Pars are doing and aren’t doing, demanding that they stand on their own two feet – a view echoed by goalkeeper Mark Brown who said: “It’s not about Dunfermline losing, that’s a defeatist attitude.
“We have to do our own jobs, we cannot rely on Dunfermline to keep losing to keep us up. As a club we have to win games and survive off our own efforts.”
Fenlon, of course, has already brought in Irish striker Eoin Doyle and on-loan Norwich City youngster George Francomb in a bid to boost Hibs’ fortunes, with the promise of more before the transfer window slams shut in a week’s time.
But while he feels the current squad should prove good enough, Hart admitted a little extra help won’t go amiss.
Expressing the view any new arrival should be prepared to “take the bull by the horns,” Hart said: “If the manager brings in new players it’s added competition and competition is always healthy.”