Alarmingly, on an afternoon when Hibernian really needed to post a long overdue performance of merit at Easter Road, Pat Fenlon’s team failed to summon something even approaching it.
Hibernian 1-2 Inverness CT
Scorers: Hibernian - Griffiths (59); Inverness CT - Draper (48), Shinnie (65)
As a result, it looks as though their top six ambitions have slipped beyond the horizon for another season.
In truth, after last season’s trauma, it represents a step forward that they were still entertaining such thoughts on the penultimate weekend before the split, and of course an unlikely sequence of results could still deposit Hibs in the top half of the league. But they won’t collect the win they need at Celtic Park this weekend by playing anything like they did on Saturday. Inverness goalkeeper Antonio Reguero only had to make one save of note throughout the 90 minutes, and the goal he conceded owed something to fortune as far as Hibs were concerned. Leigh Griffiths flicked in a speculative shot from Gary Deegan, although whether the striker knew too much about it is debatable.
Inevitably, the other chance that was well saved by Reguero also came from the boot of Griffiths, after referee Craig Thomson had played a good advantage in the middle of the park following a foul from behind on Kevin Thomson by Richie Foran. Strike partner Eoin Doyle has not scored a goal this year, while those in the midfield four are not noted for their productivity in front of goal either. To be fair, Doyle fronted up about this afterwards: “Obviously Leigh has been on fire this season,” he said. “Maybe the rest of us could be chipping in a bit more and helping out in that sense.”
Sadly for Hibs, and although he scored, Saturday was not one of those days when Griffiths felt inspired to carry his team. Too often he ran down cul-de-sacs when someone else, often Doyle, was better positioned. Yet when a team-mate had the temerity to overlook Griffiths with a pass, there was all hell to be paid. It all contributed to an unhappy afternoon for Hibs, whose Easter Road form cannot even be described as being as patchy as the pitch. After just one win in nine in the league, it is worse than this.
Fenlon sounded a bit narked when this was pointed out to him afterwards. “We haven’t lost too many, we’ve had some decent results, but it’s typical for people to look at the negatives with Hibs,” he said, although it is a bit mystifying where he gets this perceived anti-Hibs agenda from.
Doyle was a bit more realistic after first denying that the team are finding it difficult to prosper at home. “It would not be fair to say we struggle at home,” he said, before changing tack. “Well, obviously we do, we have been struggling at home, but it is not something that plays on our minds. We don’t think ‘oh now, we are playing at home this week’. We look forward to our home games.”
Hibs now turn their thoughts to a trip to Parkhead to face champions-elect Celtic, against whom they are unbeaten this season. Fenlon admitted that falling short of the top six would be hard for him to accept. “From my point of view it would be a failure and I’d be very disappointed,” he said. “The target I set myself and the players was to get into the top six and if we don’t do it then I’ll be disappointed.”
There has of course been some improvement from the last campaign, and this season could yet turn into a historic one should Hibs manage to lift the Scottish Cup. On the evidence of Saturday, the fans will not be hopeful, although it has to be said that Inverness were everything we expected them to be. Indeed, they are what Hibs sorely wish they themselves could be; fluid in attack, and robust in defence.
In Owain Tudur Jones, the visitors had a midfielder who made an impact when barely breaking sweat, while those from Hibs in the same department huffed and puffed to little effect. Thomson earned the man of the match award and looked more like his old self in the second half, but at least five members of the opposition side were more eye-catching. Andrew Shinnie, who scored the winner after 64 minutes, was one, while Foran, who set up both Inverness goals, was another. The opener was sourced from his long ball down the middle of the Hibs defence. James McPake did not distinguish himself with his effort to cope with it, but Ross Draper deserves credit for steadying himself and then lobbing Ben Williams. Shinnie’s strike was helped on its way into the net by a deflection, but the mercurial midfielder deserved this luck on an afternoon when his clever use of the ball was a joy to behold.
It was, though, a team effort, which Foran was keen to emphasise afterwards. He also appeared to suggest that manager Terry Butcher had quickly got rid of a couple of bad apples last year, when it was felt they did not fit in with the Inverness ethos. European qualification now beckons for the Highlanders.
“We have brought a good blend of players who motivate themselves,” said Foran. “It has helped having no injuries and there are no Billy Big Times. We probably had one or two earlier in the season but the manager got rid of them. Simple as that. We won’t have it in our club. It is a community club and a family club. They are not welcome and that’s why we got rid of them.”