WITH equal second-place in the league on offer, Hibernian failed miserably in their attempt to get the week off to an upbeat start last night, falling to a 3-1 defeat that flattered the hosts.
Scorers: St Johnstone - Vine 23, 26, Cregg 58; Hibernian - Griffiths 82
Referee: K Clancy
The only comfort to be drawn was the realisation that it might have been far, far worse.
Flames consumed a nearby church on a portentous night in the east end of Edinburgh and jeers engulfed Easter Road as St Johnstone earned a remarkably easy three points. Pat Fenlon, the Hibs manager, must now be feeling the heat after just a single victory in ten matches, and a marginally healthier goal-return. Leigh Griffiths’ late strike provided some succour for those Hibs fans who remained inside the ground but the strike contained only cosmetic properties. Rowan Vine had already stuck twice in the first-half and Paddy Creggan sealed the win before the hour-mark. Ben Williams continued his run of saving penalties, denying Steven Maclean from the spot after 32 minutes. But not even this could provide the spark for Hibs, who again struggled to create chances in front of goal.
There was little else of quality for the home fans to cheer. When new-signing Matt Done completed the fairly straightforward task of bringing a ball down and was applauded for it, you knew the bar had been lowered several notches. The bare pitch didn’t help, but it was still not entirely to blame for passes that were over-hit and shots that were mis-hit, with the home side particularly guilty of failing to do the basics. Eoin Doyle had a particularly embarrassing effort on goal, one that he sliced wide of the goal and could even have passed off as a cross if he was feeling brass-necked enough.
St Johnstone – or, more accurately, Vine – showed the Hibs players how it was done. He moved to centre-stage midway through the first-half and within four minutes had struck twice. This sudden burst of goals was completely out-of-keeping with what had gone before, but credit had to be given to Vine for the opportunism shown on both occasions. He was involved in the build-up, laying-off a pass to Steven Maclean. The striker lashed in a shot that looked to move in the air. It would be harsh to affix too much blame to Williams, who could only palm the ball back out again. Vine pounced on the rebound and drilled the ball into the net.
It got worse for Hibs on 25 minutes as Vine again made them pay for lax defending. A loose ball fell to the midfielder and Alan Maybury permitted him to see too much of the goal. Vine didn’t need to be asked twice and shuffled to his right before curling an effort past Williams. The small band of travelling supporters were jubilant enough but no matter how loud they cheered, the noise was drowned out by the howling and the booing in the home stands.
Mondays are difficult enough days without being made to endure what seemed, for a spell, to be all-out collapse by your beloved team.
Incredibly, St Johnstone might have been three-up after little more than half an hour. The impressive Medhdi Abeid drew Ryan McGivern into making an injudicious challenge in the box and referee Kevin Clancy immediately pointed to the spot, before reaching into his pocket and booking the Hibs defender. Williams emits a force-field when facing penalties these days. Maclean was just the latest to attempt to cope with the psychological demand of beating someone who has earned himself a deserved reputation as a penalty-saver par excellence. Although he hit the award cleanly enough, it was a good height for Williams, who flung himself to his right and beat the ball away. That is five stops from seven penalties this season; three from his last four games.
For his latest heroics to be regarded as significant, his team-mates had to rouse themselves. However, when the next opportunity fell again to St Johnstone, with Abeide dragging his shot wide of the far post, it was too much for many of the home fans, and Easter Road erupted in the most sustained burst of booing yet. One imagined that the half-time talk was a lively one in the home-dressing room, and though Fenlon gave the same set of players the chance to redeem themselves in the second-half, the fact he made a double-substitution after only four minutes illustrates how clear it was to see that the momentum continued to lie with the visitors. Indeed, Liam Craig had already tested Williams from 25 yards, and the last thing Fenlon wanted – a game-sealing goal from a player he has already signed on a pre-contract – was averted, just, as the ‘keeper managed to turn the ball past the post for a corner.
Fenlon lost patience almost immediately, withdrawing both Gary Deegan and the struggling Maybury, with Paul Cairney and Jorge Claros sent on in their place. Further humiliation was heaped on Maybury when the left-footed Lewis Stevenson was deemed by Fenlon to be a better option at right-back. The alterations did little to change the course of the game.
St Johnstone were not to be denied a third goal and after only 57 minutes they claimed it following an intricate move that saw Murray Davidson pick out Cregg in the box. He steered the ball past Williams, prompting an outbreak of shuffling down stairs from despondent Hibs supporters. Fenlon made his final change after only 67 minutes, with Danny Handling replacing Doyle.
At least Craig might have had an excuse for disappearing last night on an awkward evening for a player who, nevertheless, offered a typically committed performance. It was those wearing green shirts who caused the most harm to Hibs, and who have managed to make things even more uncomfortable for Fenlon. Griffiths did, at least, pull a goal back with eight minutes remaining, out-muscling David McCracken before slotting the ball past Alan Mannus.
Hibernian: Williams, Maybury (Cairney 50),McPake, Hanlon, McGivern, Done, Deegan (Claros 50), Robertson, Stevenson, Griffiths, Doyle (Handling 68). Subs not used: Murdoch, Taiwo, Caldwell, Forster.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Anderson, McCracken, Wright, Callum Davidson, Vine (Hasselbaink 78), Cregg, Murray Davidson, Craig, Abeid (Doughty 89), MacLean (Tade 71). Subs not used: Tuffey, Scobbie, Edwards, Caddis.