BY THE time Abdellah Zoubir was leading his opponents a merry dance in the closing stages, you had the distinct impression that Hibernian haven’t just turned the corner by stringing a few results together, they are at last threatening to play in the manner demanded by their supporters.
Scorers: Hibernian - Collins (10), Heffernan (61)
Bookings: Hibernian - Maybury, Zoubir; St Mirren - Goodwin, Grainger (sent off)
In the past, when Hibs have found a semblance of form under Pat Fenlon, they have not been convincing, scraping a draw here and a narrow win there, but the best thing about this five-match unbeaten run that they now find themselves on is the confidence with which it is being put together.
Inspired by their two new strikers, James Collins and Paul Heffernan, who scored a goal in each half for the second week in succession, Hibs earned their first home win of the season and rose to fifth in the Scottish Premiership. More than that, they closed out proceedings with the kind of swagger rarely seen at Easter Road these last couple of seasons.
It is a far cry from the four straight defeats with which they started the campaign, a run that had many calling for Fenlon’s head. “All footballers are the same,” said their manager. “If you win some games, you gain momentum and confidence. It just breeds. You can see it every day in training, but we’ve transferred it to here, and that’s important.”
A good day for the Hibs fans was enhanced by the dismissal of Danny Grainger with three minutes left. The former Hearts full-back, earlier booked for an ill-advised lunge, was given a second yellow for lashing a free kick against Alan Maybury. “It is the first time I have ever seen a player sent off for trying to take a quick free kick,” said Danny Lennon, the St Mirren manager.
The other bonus for the home support was news that Hearts had lost in Dingwall, although St Mirren had just as much cause to be happy about that. They still lead the Edinburgh side by nine points, but with only one draw to show for their efforts this season, the pressure is mounting on Lennon.
He insisted later that there had been no indication from the chairman that his time was up, although there was a hint from the manager that he might be considering a change of profession. “I know that the ingredients are in the squad, but we are not just managing to bake the right cake,” said Lennon, hereby to be known as Danny Baker.
His decision to give Christopher Dilo, a 19-year-old goalkeeper, his first start for the club was a bold move, but nothing else that St Mirren did came into that category. The Frenchman looked less than comfortable during a first half in which his team-mates were stretched all over the pitch.
As he fumbled a header by Scott Robertson, and failed to deal with a through ball that Jim Goodwin was forced to clear, the more experienced players ahead of him came second best to a Hibs side that appear to be transformed by the discovery of a striking partnership.
Collins broke his scoring duck only seven days earlier, but within nine minutes of starting this one, he had grabbed another. When Michael Nelson nodded down a long free kick, the striker nipped in to head across the line from just inside the six-yard box.
Hibs’ newfound ability to connect their forwards with their midfielders has improved the quality of their football. Craig, for one, has more opportunity to exert an influence, which he did with one perfectly-weighted pass to Collins. The striker’s rising shot, sweetly struck, glided narrowly past the left post.
Dilo needed a save to settle him down. It finally came two minutes before half-time when Lewis Stevenson picked out Heffernan, who in turn sought out the far corner with a low shot, but St Mirren’s goalkeeper got the slightest of touches to divert the ball wide.
The second half was an equally mixed bag for Dilo. An attempt to find the full-back with a long throw went only as far as an opponent, who quickly shuttled the ball across the edge of the penalty area. There, Craig had a pop with his left foot, which the goalkeeper clawed away.
Eventually, Hibs got their second, and deservedly so. Scott Robertson delayed his feed for the overlapping Alan Maybury, whose low ball across the box was ideal for Heffernan.
The little striker stole across his marker to divert it over the line with his left foot. There was nearly another for Hibs, when Collins had one disallowed, and Craig tried an audacious lob after a poor clearance by the goalkeeper, but three goals without reply would have been too much to ask.
For now, anyway.