THESE are defining weeks in Hibernian’s season. If they win their next two games – at Pittodrie in the league on Sunday, then home to Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup seven days later – they will be able to look forward to spring with renewed optimism.
Hibernian - Griffiths (48)
Dundee - Baird (8)
Referee: C Charleston
Lose both, and that old familiar feeling of falling away after a bright start will be upon them again.
The prognosis is uncertain. Having won just two of their last ten matches in the SPL, they are well short of the form they enjoyed in the autumn, but their record in recent big games is good: one of those two wins was against Celtic, and they have also drawn at Tynecastle in the league and defeated Hearts in the cup.
Much may therefore depend on manager Pat Fenlon’s ability to convince his squad that the coming games matter, because in supposedly lesser fixtures they can play with a bewildering lack of desire. The home defeat by Ross County on Boxing Day was a case in point, and Saturday’s draw with Dundee was another.
After both, the manager and his players blamed a sluggish, low-tempo approach for their sub-standard performance, and the fact that the fault was repeated so quickly suggests an inability to learn from experience.
There was a distinct improvement in the home team’s workrate against the league’s bottom side in the second half, when fewer passes went astray, but, having equalised through a Leigh Griffiths free kick just four minutes after the restart, they failed to capitalise on the possession they had and created no more than one or two real chances from open play.
Eight months to the day since that cup final, the presence of Pa Kujabi in the main stand was a reminder of how far Hibs have come from the humiliation. Fenlon has consistently said that a full recovery from that low point will take years, and there is little doubt that, whatever deviations his team may make, they are by and large on the right track. Even if they end up out of the top six, this season will still be better than last, when finishing second from bottom became the height of their ambitions in the league.
But the presence alongside Kujabi of the suspended Paul Cairney was another reminder: one of how well Hibs have played when the former Partick Thistle player has been on song, and of how badly they miss his drive when he is out of the team. Griffiths’ goals have been the most obvious factor in Hibs’ improvement this season, but Cairney’s attacking verve should not be under-rated. Whether cutting in from the left or playing as an advanced central midfielder, he has a pace and a deftness of touch which can be a threat to the most well-organised of defences.
Of course, Cairney can be just as inconsistent as his team-mates – he played the full 90 minutes against Ross County, for example, and did little, but without him, Hibs lack variety and unpredictability in attack, as Dundee discovered after the equaliser.
Left-back Ryan McGivern had been Hibs’ best player in the first half, making forays down the wing and generally getting the better of his opponents. In the second half Dundee allowed him a lot of space rather than rushing to close him down, and although at first that seemed a risky strategy, the poor quality of his crosses into the box showed it was a correct one.
McGivern’s team-mates were equally unable to muster a threat to Rab Douglas’ goal. Apart from Griffiths’s excellent strike from just outside the penalty area, the most notable on-target effort from a green jersey was a limp chip by Eoin Doyle which went straight into the goalkeeper’s arms.
Dundee, by contrast, remained lively on the break. Steven Milne had a close-range shot saved on the hour mark, and John Baird shot over from good position with just a few minutes left.
Baird had proved more accurate in the opening stages of the game, rounding off an impressive move which involved all of Dundee’s forward-minded quartet. Mark Stewart found Steven Milne, who passed on to Colin Nish, and the former Hibs striker fed Baird on the left of the box. With the home defence out of position, McGivern came across to challenge, but Baird got a shot away early and found the corner of Williams’s goal.
The keeper may have been partially unsighted by his defender, but he should still have moved across to cover the only part of his goal which was visible to the Dundee player. He redeemed himself later on in the first half, however, blocking a shot by Milne when he was through on goal.
For a time in the second half, the possession enjoyed by Hibs made them look the likelier to take all three points, before it became apparent they were doing very little with it. Similar wastefulness in the coming double-header with Aberdeen could be a lot costlier.