EVEN from his seat in the main stand, the problem for Terry Butcher was blindingly obvious.
Short of ideas, as well as players to execute them, his Hibs team yesterday showed the full extent of their attacking deficiencies by failing to break down a St Johnstone side who played with ten men for over an hour.
The visiting side were there for the taking after Paddy Cregg was sent off in the 30th minute, just seconds after he had come on as a substitute, but Hibs succeeded only in showing why they are the Scottish Premiership’s lowest scorers. In their last seven league matches, they have found the net only once.
For all their possession, they rarely tested Alan Mannus, who was forced into just a couple of saves, the best of which came in the closing seconds. James Collins’ glancing header was looping towards the top corner until the St Johnstone goalkeeper pawed it away.
Collins cut a frustrated figure during that late flurry, the talking point of which was a strong penalty claim. After the ball had broken to him in the box, the Hibs striker was all set to pull the trigger, when Brian Easton, the St Johnstone substitute, appeared to bring him down.
“It’s a definite penalty,” said
Collins, who claimed that Easton admitted, as they walked off, that it had been of the stonewall variety.
“I’m not convinced it was a penalty at all,” said Butcher, who was more concerned about his team’s shortcomings. While he was happy with Jason Cummings, the young striker who made his first start for the club, he admitted that the rest of his players had not handled the expectation that came with Cregg’s dismissal.
“Having not scored many goals, and not had many wins at Easter Road this year, you can sense there is a fear of winning,” said Butcher, who was serving a one-match touchline ban. “As soon as the red card [happened], it was St Johnstone’s best spell of the game. You could see the lads thinking, ‘we might actually win this’. It was like a fear.”
Butcher’s absence from the dugout was not the only disciplinary issue. First there was Scott Robertson’s yellow card for cheekily pacing out ten yards to demonstrate that St Johnstone’s defensive wall had not retreated far enough. Then there was the straight red for Cregg, administered just seconds after he had replaced the injured Murray Davidson. The substitute’s first contribution was a scissor-style lunge at Paul Cairney that had Alan Muir, the referee, immediately sprinting over with the card above his head.
It was the second time in the space of a fortnight that a St Johnstone player had come off the bench, only to be sent off within a minute of his arrival. Rory Fallon at least had the good grace to do it late in the game against Aberdeen.
Cregg’s rashness meant that the Perth side would be disadvantaged for a full hour, although their best – make that only – chance of the first half came after his departure. David Wotherspoon skinned Ryan McGivern down the right before sliding over such a dangerous cross that it almost produced an own goal at the front post. When the rebound broke to Stevie May, his scrambled effort was blocked by Robertson.
Hibs had most of the ball, before and after Cregg’s offence, but struggled to do much with it in the final third. Their only notable effort in a scrappy first half came when Jordon Forster dispossessed Gwion Edwards wide on the right. When the young full-back swung in his cross, Cairney connected, only to see Mannus beat it away.
After the interval, Hibs were marginally more inventive. When Robertson beat the offside trap to break down the right, his square ball across the box, diverted goalwards by Gary McDonald, was blocked by Mannus.
Then Cummings slid in at the back post, but couldn’t make contact. Liam Craig managed to pick out the target, but his firm shot from 25 yards was straight at the goalkeeper.
Hibs’ players were furious that their late penalty claim was rejected, but it would have been hard on St Johnstone, who also lost Chris Millar and Murray Davidson to injury in the first half. “Hopefully, at the end of the season, we will look back on it as a magnificent point,” said Wright. “To play for an hour, away from home, with only ten men is always difficult, but we limited them to only a few chances. I’m delighted with their character and attitude.”