There are landmark moments on Hibs’ journey back from the hell-hole where they spent much of the last two seasons, many examples of how they have changed as a team, become steelier in a physical and a mental sense.
Hibernian: Griffiths 37, 65
St Mirren: McLean 32
Referee: A Muir
Their dogged draw at Celtic Park a while back was one such case in point – and here was another.
Trailing by a goal to a St Mirren side that were belying their position two from bottom of the SPL with an edge that was troubling their hosts early on, the home side powered back, scored two and did what they set out to do: namely, achieve a win that puts them top of the division. How times have changed in these parts.
Pat Fenlon is doing a terrific job at Easter Road, the proof of his clever management evidenced by the coruscating form of his go-to man up front, Leigh Griffiths. The striker was a walking problem last season: indisciplined, unfocused and a constant headache with his truculence and his gestures and his supposed training ground histrionics. Fenlon has turned this boy around in a spectacular way. Always talented, he is now showing his range of gifts. And we saw most of them during the course of this tour de force of a performance.
He scored both goals for a start, a double which brings his tally for the season to 11 including a run of eight goals in his last six games. But that doesn’t tell the full story of what he contributed to this victory. On top of the goals, he thumped a shot off St Mirren’s post in the first half and thundered a free-kick off another post in the second half. Late in the day, he ran on to a ball on the left-side of the penalty area and with one small gap to find to the back of the St Mirren net, he found it. It was a delicious left-foot shot that would have brought up his hat-trick had there not been an offside flag up, not that he knew it.
Throughout the afternoon he was a dervish, a massive handful for Lee Mair and Marc McAusland, the poor unfortunates who had the job of keeping him quiet. Two against one wasn’t fair odds – on the two, that is.
Danny Lennon’s team came here full of intent but if Griffiths’ threat didn’t undermine them enough then the red card shown to Jim Goodwin midway through the second half damaged them further. Goodwin walked after a body-check on David Wotherspoon, a second yellow and a horrible blow to Lennon’s team.
Credit to them, though. They kept playing, kept trying to make chances and engineered a couple of decent ones in their pursuit of a point. If there was a crumb of comfort to be had for Saints it came in the realisation that Hibs couldn’t ever relax, not even with a one-goal and a one-man advantage. It’s something to build on for Lennon as he tries to drag his team away from the wrong end of the table.
Indeed, early on, before Hibs came storming back, it was St Mirren who held the whip-hand. At the heart of what they were doing was Kenny McLean, pulling strings in the midfield, and Steven Thompson, causing trouble up ahead of him. Thompson, in fact, came close to opening the scoring early on and was only denied by a smart save from Ben Williams, a goalkeeper who did much to keep his team in the game in those early moments. He produced a superb block soon after when Thomas Reilly dinked the ball over the Hibs defence to McLean whose shot was kicked away by Williams.
As good as that save was, Williams couldn’t deal with what came at him next, a gorgeous hit from 25 yards from McLean that fairly flew low to the goalkeeper’s left. The problem for Lennon’s team was that they held their lead for such a terribly short period, just five minutes. They needed to consolidate, needed to spook Hibs and get the crowd frustrated and impatient, but Griffiths would not be stopped.
The origins of the goal came up the left-hand side with fine work by Paul Cairney who whipped in a cross that carried all the way to the back post where Griffiths lurked. He got the ball under control and smashed it past the exposed Craig Samson in the St Mirren goal.
Hibs then went about seizing the initiative. They were forceful in the early minutes of the new half, full of running and menace, and had the lead when Griffiths drove in a shot from the edge of the penalty area. Two minutes later, Goodwin disappeared. His departure might have sparked an implosion from St Mirren, but they dug in. They couldn’t rescue a point and, to be fair, it would have been unjust on Hibs had they done so.
It would have been a travesty had Griffiths not finished a winner on a day when he came within inches of five goals, never mind two. Two would do, though. Two goals, three points and another significant afternoon in the steady rebuilding of Hibs after the dog-days of recent times. Top of the league. Who’d have thought it possible only six months ago?
MAN OF TH MATCH
Leigh Griffiths (Hibernian)
Leigh Griffiths put in one of the performances of the season. Outstanding.
Griffiths again. Given his form, is he ready for international football?