HIBERNIAN’s flirtation with relegation is surely all but over now. It has been a long and messy entanglement, one from which, for months, they lacked the strength to break free. But with this result they are just about there.
It could have been better for Pat Fenlon’s team. Having taken the lead through an inch-perfect free-kick from Garry O’Connor, they were within ten minutes of securing three points rather than just one when Nicky Law equalised. However, the difference may only be academic.
Dunfermline are seven points behind their Edinburgh rivals rather than nine at the bottom of the SPL, yet that will give them no more than faint encouragement. They need to win three games from their remaining five, having won only four in the league since the start of the season. Even then, that will only constitute escape if Hibs fail to pick up another victory.
For much of the campaign, but especially since Fenlon augmented his squad so heavily in January, it has been apparent that Hibs have had the better players, Dunfermline the better team spirit. The Fife club have been hanging on to their rivals’ coat-tails while playing more or less to the best of their ability: Hibs, by contrast, have underperformed week after week.
It never seemed inevitable that Hibs would snap out of their malaise, but if and when they did it was always likely that they would be able to pull away from the foot of the table. Although they were fortunate to open up a six-point gap with a win at Inverness eight days ago, that result nonetheless was a significant boost to their self-belief. The proof of that came yesterday in a performance which showed more confidence and purpose than just about any other game this season, one significant exception being the 3-2 win at East End Park back in January that really should have kick-started a sustained recovery.
Some circumstances were in the home team’s favour. Without the suspended Steve Jennings and Steven Hammell, Motherwell lacked the usual platform from which to build attacks. But Stuart McCall’s team remained more than useful, and on another day, against a less composed Hibs side, they would have turned their possession into more than one goal.
As it was, Graham Stack had little to do in the Hibs goal from the fourth minute, when Tim Clancy headed straight into his arms from a Law corner, to the time of the latter player’s equaliser. Darren Randolph was not exactly over-occupied at the other end of the pitch either, but as well as being beaten for the goal he was relieved to see a strike from Tom Soares come back off the bar.
If that shot five minutes into the second half had gone in, Hibs would probably have gone on to win a game which always seemed too well ordered to produce a feast of goals. They had been marginally the better side in the first half, in which Ivan Sproule had stretched the Motherwell defence and Lewis Stevenson had been the pick of the midfielders.
It was Sproule who won the free-kick from which O’Connor scored, when he was impeded by Keith Lasley on the edge of the 18-yard box. Positioned just to the left of goal, it was in an ideal position for the striker, and his delivery would surely have beaten Randolph even if Clancy had not distracted the goalkeeper by running across his path as the ball was fired in.
Five minutes later Griffiths had a shot saved after he had made room for himself on the left, just as he had done for the winner against Caley Thistle. Soares’ second-half effort was the next one of note, and after that the contest was becalmed for more than half an hour as Motherwell kept pressing but Hibs stood firm.
The visitors were not to be denied, though. They had launched a score or more of attacks down the right, and eventually one paid off. Tom Hateley’s ball into the box was seized on by Omar Daley, and the substitute passed the ball back to Lasley. The captain’s chip towards goal was headed clear of the penalty area by Soares, but only as far as Law, who chested the ball down before shooting home.
The goal maintained Motherwell’s five-point advantage over St Johnstone, who are now their closest rivals for third place and the Champions League qualifying-round slot which goes with it. It was enough to thwart Hibs’ hopes of claiming a second home win of the season in the league, but did nothing to dampen their spirits. They finished the game on the offensive, and Motherwell ended it a man down when centre-half Jonathan Page was sent off for a second caution after blocking substitute striker Roy O’Donovan.