Griffiths brace can’t mask Hibs’ defensive trouble

Leigh Griffiths taps home Hibs' equaliser. Picture: SNS
Leigh Griffiths taps home Hibs' equaliser. Picture: SNS
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TWO wins from 18 league games is hardly the kind of form to imbue fans of too many previous Scottish Cup heartaches with the belief that this year’s event will be any kinder.

Hibernian 3 - 3 St Mirren

Scorers: Griffiths 30, 85, Caldwell 67; St Mirren - Goncalves 6, McAusland 77, 82

Referee: C Allan

Attendance: 9,264

Although if it hadn’t been for a competition they are said to be cursed in, the stats would be even gloomier. The victories over Hearts, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and then Falkirk en route to next month’s final against Celtic have helped deflect from a disappointing second half of their league campaign. There have been ten league victories so far but only two have been conjured up since the end of November. That is why defensive displays like the one served up on Saturday are a cause of major frustration to manager Pat Fenlon.

Having made it to a second successive Scottish Cup final – which is no mean feat – the thought of any kind of repeat of last term’s shambling 5-1 thrashing is a sobering one for all involved with the club.

“We know we are coming up against a top, top team and we need to be as solid as we can be and we can’t afford to give a team like that the easy goals we are giving away at the minute. We are working so hard to get ourselves in great positions in games but then costly wee mistakes are killing us,” admitted defender Ryan McGivern.

“We were very comfortable and I thought we were in control for large spells of the game [against St Mirren] and put ourselves in a good position but we shot ourselves in the foot by conceding three very sloppy goals. Thankfully we managed to get a point out of it but it’s definitely a game where we should have been coming away with all three points.

“It was definitely two points lost. When they got their first goal, we sort of lost our way for a bit and the one positive is that we didn’t lie down when they went 3-2 up and we fought back and got the equaliser.”

Just as they did in the semi-final, Hibs snatched some kind of reward from the jaws of defeat, thanks to their kids and the perennial goal threat that is Leigh Griffiths. But on those occasions they fought back against a First Division side and another one still trying to stave off that status and get the points required to doom Dundee to the drop instead. Celtic, though, are the champions and in the hunt for the domestic double.

That’s not to say that St Mirren were not a determined force at Easter Road. Having gone one down to Griffiths’ 26th goal of the season, half an hour into the match, they never really fell out of contention.

The goal was typical Griffiths, ghosting in from the wide area and unleashing the kind of drive that is laudable but unstoppable. Hibs should have doubled the lead before half-time, but when young Danny Handling cut the ball back to Eoin Doyle, the Irishman blazed his close-range effort over the bar.

But substitutions were to play their part in this fixture. First up, St Mirren replaced John McGinn with Sam Parkin and his addition to the ranks rattled the home side, who were struggling to hold position and remain composed.

They had had their hands full with Esmael Goncalves, Gary Teale and Stephen Thompson and another threat left them exposed. It was Teale who made the break for the equaliser and he provided the cut-back for Goncalves, who picked out Thompson. While his strike was blocked, Hibs couldn’t clear and it was the Portuguese frontman who was quickest to react to the rebound, sneaking the ball inside the near post as the Hibs rearguard proved slow to close him down.

Hibs substitute Ross Caldwell re-established the lead with a clinical low shot from a central area about 18 yards out, which flew beyond Craig Samson. But St Mirren weren’t done fighting. They know there are still favourites to stay up but with Dundee closing in on them they are not free from danger just yet. But their fate is still in their own hands, says goalkeeper Samson, who has knocked back the club’s initial offer of a new contract and is hoping that SPL survival may prompt enhanced provision.

“That was a rollercoaster again,” he said, aware that they next have the chance to wrap up matters against Hearts at Tynecastle on Saturday. “Dundee will be hanging on in there and they’re doing great. They’re going to continue playing with a bit of freedom because they’re under no pressure, you know? Nobody expects them to stay up. That is why the pressure is on us a wee bit. We just have to know that, if we play well next week, we can win the game and put it to bed.

“You have to say that Dundee are on a great run, but we need to just worry about ourselves, not worry about them.”

They almost had matters resolved on Saturday when two goals from the unlikely source of Marc McAusland, both from close range, both the kind of goals to have Fenlon tearing at his hair, gave St Mirren the lead with only eight minutes remaining.

But for all Neil Lennon has disputed the PFA Scotland Player of the Year shortlist, Griffiths reminded everyone else why he is on it, popping up with his 27th goal of the season. It was his seventh goal in four matches against the Paisley side this term and if St Mirren do go down, he will undoubtedly be the major villain of the piece.