THE mood around Easter Road has changed dramatically for the better since Terry Butcher arrived, but the manager is aware that a consistent improvement in results will take far longer to bring about.
Baby steps, he called the progress made in this match, and you can see why, despite his natural optimism, the former England captain is in no danger of being carried away. This draw maintained Butcher’s unbeaten start to his new life, but it also extended Hibernian’s run without a league win to six matches stretching back to the start of October. They remain the lowest-scoring team in the Premiership, with James Collins’s stoppage-time strike having at last taken them into double figures.
Stated baldly like that, those statistics sound alarming, but in reality this current poor run has not done Hibs too much harm. They were fifth after winning at Firhill two months ago, and now, having accumulated just three points more, are still no lower than seventh.
An unbeaten run earlier in the season proved they were not entirely useless under Pat Fenlon, but they were always susceptible to a rogue result. The Irishman insisted the club had made progress under his stewardship, and in a relative sense he was right: second bottom in his first season, they were seventh last time round. But that progress was never sustained; never built on firm foundations.
In a division largely made up of teams of a similar standard, consistency can count for a great deal, and Butcher can legitimately expect better from his current squad than they have given this season. Having had time to assess that squad, he appears closer to deciding that he needs to bring in a couple of players in January.
The imminent return from injury of Scott Robertson and Paul Heffernan should also help. The intelligence and alertness of both players were missed on Saturday.
As it was, the home team – and the match – only came to life after Kris Doolan had given Partick Thistle the lead. The two sides had been equally culpable for a soporific first half, and Hibs defenders Jordon Forster and Paul Hanlon still looked half asleep when the striker punished them.
Forster was too slow in getting to a ball on the right touchline, allowing Doolan to nick it away from him then speed on into the box. Hanlon moved to close him down, and Forster was close behind him, but neither Hibs man put in a significant challenge as Doolan skipped clear then dinked the ball past goalkeeper Ben Williams.
With 40 minutes in which to chase an equaliser, Butcher gradually went for a more offensive line-up in the hope of turning up the pressure on Thistle. French meanderer Abdellah Zoubir was first off the bench, and although he offered a different kind of threat to Danny Handling, the man he had replaced, he was no more incisive.
Striker Jason Cummings was next, taking over from midfielder Lewis Stevenson as Hibs threw more men forward. The teenager was presented with an excellent opportunity to equalise within a minute of coming on, but failed to reach Forster’s header back across goal.
To be fair to Cummings, that had been far from the first missed chance to fall to a Hibs player. Collins had come closest to equalising, quarter of an hour after Doolan’s goal, but his mishit shot had been acrobatically saved by Scott Fox.
At the other end, just before Cummings came on, Ross Forbes, himself a substitute, had shot wide when it looked easier to score. The Thistle man had benefited from a fortunate ricochet, and perhaps expected to hear the referee’s whistle for hand-ball, but even so he should have got his shot on target.
Had they gone 2-0 down at that stage of the game, there would have been no way back for Hibs, but in the end they got their point. Half of the four minutes’ stoppage time had been played when Williams launched a long free kick into the box. Hanlon headed back across goal, and Collins, unmarked, shot home from a few yards out.
The concession of such a late goal inevitably meant that Thistle left the ground deeply disappointed, but both the way in which they played and the result should be taken as encouraging signs. Ninth in the table, they are doing enough to keep their heads above water, and playing an attractive brand of football.
As for Hibs, one more encouraging sign was the return of Michael Nelson, their third substitute. Having been absent since the home draw with Celtic because of a facial injury, Nelson got no more than five minutes on Saturday. This weekend’s match at Parkhead may be too early for him to start, but he should soon be back at centre-half, having shown earlier in the season that he has exactly the sort of stability that Hibs need.